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Through the Narrow Gate 
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The First Christian: St. Paul ? Imp act on Christianity 
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A Short History 




2002 Modern Library Paperback Edition 

Copyright © 2000,2002 by Karen Armstrong 

Discussion questions and pronunciation guide copyright © 2002 

by Random House, Inc. 

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American 

Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by 

Modern Library, an imprint of The Random House Publishing 

Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, 

and simultaneously in Canada by Random House 

of Canada Limited, Toronto. 

MODERN LIBRARY and the TORCHBEARER Design are registered 
trademarks of Random House, Inc. 

This work was published in hardcover and in slightly different form 

in the United Kingdom by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a division of 

The Orion Publishing Group, Ltd. and in the United States by 

The Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc., in 2000. 



ISBN 0-81 29-66 18-X 

Modern Library website address: w w w . modernlibrary .com 

Printed in the United States of America 

24689753 1 


List of Maps vii 

Preface IX 

Chronology xiii 


The Prophet (570-632) 3 

The Rashidun (632-661) 23 

The First Fitnah 3 3 


The Umayyads and the Second Fitnah 41 

The Religious Movement 45 

The Last Years of the Umayyads (705-750) 50 
The Abbasids: The High Caliphal Period (750-935) 53 

The Esoteric Movements 65 


A New Order (935-1258) 81 

The Crusades 93 

Expansion 95 

The Mongols (1 220-1 500) 96 


Imperial Islam ( 1 500- 1 700) 115 

The Safavid Empire 117 

vi . Contents 

The Moghul Empire 


The Ottoman Empire 



The Arrival of the West (1 750-2000) 


What is a Modern Muslim State? 




Muslims in a Minority 


The Way Forward 


Epilogue 189 

Key Figures in the History of Islam 193 

Glossary of Arabic Terms 203 

Pronunciation Guide 207 

Notes 209 

Suggestions for Further Reading 211 

Index 219 

Discussion Questions 229 


Muhammad's world: Arabia c 610 CE 9 

The Early Conquests 28 

Expansion under the Umayyads 51 

The Disintegration of the Abbasid Empire 82 

The Seljuk Empire 89 

The Crusader States in Palestine, Syria and 

Anatolia c 1130 94 

The Mongol World (during the reign of Hulegu, 

1255-65) 99 

The Safavid Empire (1500-1 722) 119 

The Moghul Empire (1526-1 707) 126 

The Ottoman Empire 131 


The external history of a religious tradition often seems di- 
vorced from the raison d'etre of faith. The spiritual quest is an 
interior journey; it is a psychic rather than a political drama. It 
is preoccupied with liturgy, doctrine, contemplative disci- 
plines and an exploration of the heart, not with the clash of 
current events. Religions certainly have a life outside the soul. 
Their leaders have to contend with the state and affairs of the 
world, and often relish doing so. They fight with members of 
other faiths, who seem to challenge their claim to a monopoly 
of absolute truth; they also persecute their co-religionists for 
interpreting a tradition differently or for holding heterodox 
beliefs. Very often priests, rabbis, imams and shamans are just 
as consumed by worldly ambition as regular politicians. But all 
this is generally seen as an abuse of a sacred ideal. These power 
struggles are not what religion is really about, but an unworthy 
distraction from the life of the spirit, which is conducted far 
from the madding crowd, unseen, silent and unobtrusive. In- 
deed, in many faiths, monks and mystics lock themselves away 
from the world, since the clamour and strife of history is re- 
garded as incompatible with a truly religious life. 

In the Hindu tradition, history is dismissed as evanescent, 
unimportant and insubstantial. The philosophers of ancient 

X ' Preface 

Greece were concerned with the eternal laws underlying the 
flux of external events, which could be of no real interest to a 
serious thinker. In the gospelsjesus often went out of his way to 
explain to his followers that his Kingdom was not of this world, 
but could only be found within the believer. The Kingdom 
would not arrive with a great political fanfare, but would de- 
velop as quietly and imperceptibly as a germinating mustard- 
seed. In the modern West, we have made a point of separating 
religion from politics; this secularization was originally seen by 
the philosophes of the Enlightenment as a means of liberating re- 
ligion from the corruption of state affairs, and allowing it to be- 
come more truly itself. 

But however spiritual their aspirations, religious people 
have to seek God or the sacred in this world. They often feel 
that they have a duty to bring their ideals to bear upon soci- 
ety. Even if they lock themselves away, they are inescapably 
men and women of their time and are affected by what goes 
on outside the monastery, although they do not fully realize 
this. Wars, plagues, famines, economic recession and the in- 
ternal politics of their nation will intrude upon their clois- 
tered existence and qualify their religious vision. Indeed, the 
tragedies of history often goad people into the spiritual quest, 
in order to find some ultimate meaning in what often seems 
to be a succession of random, arbitrary and dispiriting inci- 
dents. There is a symbiotic relationship between history and 
religion, therefore. It is, as the Buddha remarked, our percep- 
tion that existence is awry that forces us to find an alternative 
which will prevent us from falling into despair. 

Perhaps the central paradox of the religious life is that it 
seeks transcendence, a dimension of existence that goes be- 
yond our mundane lives, but that human beings can only ex- 
perience this transcendent reality in earthly, physical 
phenomena. People have sensed the divine in rocks, moun- 
tains, temple buildings, law codes, written texts, or in other 

Preface • xi 

men and women. We never experience transcendence di- 
rectly: our ecstasy is always "earthed," enshrined in some- 
thing or someone here below. Religious people are trained to 
look beneath the unpromising surface to find the sacred 
within it. They have to use their creative imaginations. Jean- 
Paul Sartre defined the imagination as the ability to think of 
what is not present. Human beings are religious creatures be- 
cause they are imaginative; they are so constituted that they 
are compelled to search for hidden meaning and to achieve an 
ecstasy that makes them feel fully alive. Each tradition en- 
courages the faithful to focus their attention on an earthly 
symbol that is peculiarly its own, and to teach themselves to 
see the divine in it. 

In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their 
sacred scripture, the Quran, gave them a historical mission. 
Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all 
members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated 
with absolute respect. The experience of building such a so- 
ciety and living in it would give them intimations of the di- 
vine, because they would be living in accordance with God's 
will. A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that 
state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the 
stuff of religion itself. The political well-being of the Muslim 
community was a matter of supreme importance. Like any 
religious ideal, it was almost impossibly difficult to imple- 
ment in the flawed and tragic conditions of history, but after 
each failure Muslims had to get up and begin again. 

Muslims developed their own rituals, mysticism, philoso- 
phy, doctrines, sacred texts, laws and shrines like everybody 
else. But all these religious pursuits sprang directly from the 
Muslims' frequently anguished contemplation of the political 
current affairs of Islamic society. If state institutions did not 
measure up to the Quranic ideal, if their political leaders 
were cruel or exploitative, or if their community was humili- 

xii . Preface 

ated by apparently irreligious enemies, a Muslim could feel 
that his or her faith in life's ultimate purpose and value was in 
jeopardy. Every effort had to be expended to put Islamic his- 
tory back on track, or the whole religious enterprise would 
fail, and life would be drained of meaning. Politics was, there- 
fore, what Christians would call a sacrament: it was the arena 
in which Muslims experienced God and which enabled the 
divine to function effectively in the world. Consequently, the 
historical trials and tribulations of the Muslim community- 
political assassinations, civil wars, invasions, and the rise and 
fall of the ruling dynasties-were not divorced from the inte- 
rior religious quest, but were of the essence of the Islamic vi- 
sion. A Muslim would meditate upon the current events of 
his time and upon past history as a Christian would contem- 
plate an icon, using the creative imagination to discover the 
hidden divine kernel. An account of the external history of 
the Muslim people cannot, therefore, be of mere secondary 
interest, since one of the chief characteristics of Islam has 
been its sacralization of history. 


610 The Prophet Muhammad receives the first revelations of 
the Quran in Mecca and, two years later, begins to preach. 

616 Relations between the Meccan establishment and 
Muhammad's converts deteriorate; there is persecution 
and Muhammad's position becomes increasingly unten- 
able in Mecca. 

620 Arabs from the settlement of Yathrib (later called Med- 
ina) make contact with Muhammad and invite him to lead 
their community. 

622 The Prophet together with some seventy Muslim fami- 
lies make the hijrah,or migration, from Mecca to Medina 
and the Meccan establishment vows revenge. The hijrah 
marks the beginning of the Muslim era. 

624 Muslims inflict a dramatic defeat on Mecca at the Battle 
of Badr. 

625 Muslims suffer a severe defeat at the hands of the Mec- 
can army at the Battle of Uhud, outside Medina. 

The Jewish tribes of Qaynuqah and Nadir are expelled 
from Medina for collaborating with Mecca. 
627 Muslims soundly defeat the Meccan army at the Battle 
of the Trench. This is followed by the massacre of the men 
of the Jewish tribe of Qurayzah, which had supported the 
Meccans against the Muslims. 

xiv . Chronology 

628 Muhammad's daring peace initiative results in the 
Treaty of Hudaybiyyah between Mecca and Medina. He 
is now seen as the most powerful man in Arabia and at- 
tracts many of the Arabian tribes into his confederacy. 

630 The Meccans violate the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. 
Muhammad marches on Mecca with a large army of Mus- 
lims and their tribal allies. Mecca recognizes its defeat and 
voluntarily opens the gates to Muhammad, who takes the 
city without bloodshed and without forcing anybody to 
convert to Islam. 

632 Death of the Prophet Muhammad. 

Abu Bakr is elected his khalifah (representative). 

632-34 The caliphate of Abu Bakr and the wars of riddah 
against tribes who secede from the confederacy. Abu Bakr 
manages to subdue the revolt and unite all the tribes of 

634-44 The caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab. 

The Muslim armies invade Iraq, Syria and Egypt. 

638 The Muslims conquer Jerusalem, which becomes the third 
holiest city in the Islamic world after Mecca and Medina. 

641 The Muslims control Syria, Palestine and Egypt; they 
have defeated the Persian Empire and, when manpower is 
available, will occupy its territories. 

The garrison towns of Kufah, Basrah and Fustat are built 
to house the Muslim troops, who live separately from the 
subject population. 

644 Caliph Umar is assassinated by a Persian prisoner of war. 
Uthman ibn Affan is elected the third caliph. 

644-50 Muslims conquer Cyprus, Tripoli in North Africa 
and establish Muslim rule in Iran, Afghanistan and Sind. 

656 Caliph Uthman is assassinated by malcontent Muslim 
soldiers, who acclaim Ali ibn Abi Talib as the new caliph, 
but not all accept Ali's rule. 

656-60 The first fitnah. Civil war ensues. 

Chronology . XV 

656 The Battle of the Camel. Aisha, the Prophet's wife, Tal- 
hah and Zubayr lead a rebellion against Ali for not aveng- 
ing Uthman's murder. They are defeated by Ali's partisans. 

In Syria the opposition is led by Uthman's kinsman 
Muawiyyah ibn Abi Sufyan. 

657 An attempt is made to arbitrate between the two sides at 
Siffin; when the arbitration goes against Ali, Muawwiyyah 
deposes him and is proclaimed caliph in Jerusalem. 

The Kharajites secede from Ali's camp. 

661 Ali is murdered by a Kharajite extremist. 

Ali's supporters acclaim his son Hasan as the next caliph, 
but Hasan comes to an agreement with Muawiyyah and 
retires to Medina. 

661-80 The caliphate of Muawiyyah I. He founds the 
Umayyad dynasty, and moves his capital from Medina to 

669 The death of Hasan ibn Ali in Medina. 

680 Yazid I becomes the second Umayyad caliph on the 
death of his father, Muawiyyah. 

680-92 The secondfitnah. Another civil war ensues. 

680 The Muslims of Kufah, who call themselves the Shiah 
i-Ali (the Partisans of Ali), acclaim Husain, the second son 
of Ali ibn Abi Talib, as caliph. Husain sets out from Med- 
ina to Kufah with a tiny army and is killed on the plain of 
Kerbalaby Yazid's troops. 
Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr revolts against Yazid in Arabia. 

683 Death of Yazid I. 

Death of his infant son, Muawiyyah U. 
Accession of Marwan I, the Umayyad claimant to the 
caliphate, who is supported by the Syrians. 

684 Kharajite rebels against the Umayyads set up an inde- 
pendent state in central Arabia. 

Kharajite uprisings in Iraq and Iran. 
Shii uprising in Kufah. 

xvi . Chronology 

685-705 Caliphate of Abd al-Malik, who manages to restore 
Umayyad rule. 

691 Umayyad forces defeat the Kharajite and Shii rebels. 
The Dome of the Rock is completed in Jerusalem. 

692 Umayyad forces defeat and kill Ibn al-Zubayr. 

As a result of the fitnah wars, a religious movement de- 
velops in Basrah, Medina and Kufah; various schools cam- 
paign for a more stringent application of the quarah in 
public and private life. 

705-1 7 Caliphate of al-Walid. 

Muslim armies continue the conquest of North Africa 
and establish a kingdom in Spain. 

717-20 Caliphate of Umar II. The first caliph to encourage 
conversion to Islam. He tries to implement some of the 
ideals of the religious movement. 

720-24 Caliphate of Yazid II, a dissolute ruler. There is 
widespread Shii and Kharajite discontent with Umayyad 

724-43 Caliphate of Hisham I, a devout but more autocratic 
ruler, who also antagonizes the more pious Muslims. 

728 Death of Hasan al-Basri, hadith scholar, religious re- 
former and ascetic. 

732 The Battle of Poitiers. Charles Martel defeats a small 
raiding party of Spanish Muslims. 
Abu Hanifah pioneers the study of fiqh. 
Muhammad ibn Ishaq writes the first major biography of 
the Prophet Muhammad. 

743-44 The Abbasid faction begins to muster support against 
the Umayyads in Iran, fighting under the banner of the 

743 Caliphate of Walid H, 

744-49 Marwan II seizes the caliphate and tries to restore 
Umayyad supremacy against the insurgents. His Syrian 
forces suppress some of the Shii revolts, but: 

Chronology . xvii 

749 The Abbasids conquer Kufah and overthrow the 

750-54 Caliph Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah, the first Abbasid 
caliph, massacres all the members of the Umayyad family. 
A sign of an absolute monarchy that is new to Islam. 

755-75 Caliphate of Abu Jafar al-Mansur. He murders 
prominent Shiis. 

756 Spain secedes from the Abbasid caliphate, setting up an 
independent kingdom under the leadership of one of the 
Umayyad refugees. 

762 The foundation of Baghdad, which becomes the new 
Abbasid capital. 

765 The death of Jafar as-Sadiq, the Sixth Imam of the 
Shiah, who urges his Shii disciples to withdraw on princi- 
ple from politics. 

769 Death of Abu Hanifa, the founder of the first of the 
great schools of Islamic law. 

775-85 Caliphate of al-Mahdi. He encourages the develop- 
ment of fiqh, acknowledges the piety of the religious 
movement, which gradually learns to coexist with the ab- 
solutism of the Abbasid dynasty. 

786-809 Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid. The zenith of Ab- 
basid power. A great cultural renaissance in Baghdad and 
other cities of the empire. Besides patronizing scholarship, 
science and the arts, the caliph also encourages the study 
of fiqh and the anthologization of ahadith which will enable 
the formation of a coherent body of Islamic law (Shariah). 

795 Death of Malik ibn Anas, founder of the Maliki school of 

801 Death of Rabiah, the first great woman mystic. 

809-13 Civil war between al-Mamun and al-Amin, the two 
sons of Harun al-Rashid. Al-Mamun defeats his brother. 

8 13-33 Caliphate of al-Mamun. 

814-15 A Shii rebellion in Basrah. 

xviii . Chronology 

A Kharajite revolt in Khurasan. 

An intellectual, a patron of arts and learning, the caliph 
inclines towards the rationalistic theology of the Mutazi- 
lah, who had hitherto been out of favour. The caliph tries 
to reduce tension by wooing some of the rival religious 

817 Al-Mamun appoints al-Rida, the Eighth Shii Imam, as 
his successor. 

8 18 Al-Rida dies, possibly murdered. 

A state-sponsored inquisition (mihnah) tries to enforce 
Mutazilah views over those of the more popular ahl al- 
hadith, who are imprisoned for their doctrines. 

833 Death of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, a hero of the ahl al-hadith, 
and the founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. 

833-42 Caliphate of al-Mutasim. The caliph creates his own 
personal corps of Turkish slave soldiers and moves his 
capital to Samarra. 

842-47 Caliphate of al-Wathiq. 

847-61 Caliphate of al-Mutawakkil. 

848 Ali al-Hadi, the Tenth Shii Imam, is imprisoned in the 
Askari fortress in Samarra. 

861-62 Caliphate of al-Muntasir. 

862-66 Caliphate of al-Mustain. 

866-69 Caliphate of al-Mutazz. 

868 Death of the Tenth Shii Imam. His son Hasan al-Askari 
continues to live as a prisoner in Samarra. 

869-70 Caliphate of al-Muhtadi. 

870 Death of Yaquib ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, the first of the Mus- 
lim Faylasufs. 

870-72 Caliphate of al-Mutamid. 

874 Hasan al-Askari, the Eleventh Shii Imam, dies in prison 
in Samarra. His son Abu al-Qasim Muhammad is said to 
have gone into hiding to save his life. He is known as the 
Hidden Imam. 

Chronology . xix 

Death of Abu Yazid al-Bistami, one of the earliest of the 
"drunken Sufi" mystics. 
892-902 Caliphate of al-Mutadid. 
902-8 Caliphate of al-Muktafi. 
908-32 Caliphate of al-Muqtadir. 

909 Shii Fatimids seize power in Ifriqiyyah, Tunisia. 

910 Death of Junayd of Baghdad, the first of the "sober 

922 The execution for blasphemy of the "drunken Sufi" Hu- 
sain al-Mansur, known as al-Hallaj, the Wool-Carder. 

923 Death in Baghdad of the historian Abu Jafar al-Tabari. 
932-34 Caliphate of al-Qahir. 

934-40 Caliphate of al-Radi. 

934 The "Occultation" of the Hidden Imam in a transcen- 
dent realm is announced. 

935 Death of the philosopher Hasan al-Ashari. 

From this point, the caliphs no longer wield temporal 
power but retain merely a symbolic authority. Real power 
now resides with the local rulers, who establish dynasties in 
various parts of the empire. Most of them acknowledge the 
suzerainty of the Abbasid caliphs. Many of these local rulers 
of the tenth century have Shii leanings. 

The Samanids 

874-999 A Sunni Iranian dynasty, the Samanids rule in 
Khurasan, Rayy, Kirman, and Transoxania, with a capital 
at Bukhara. Samarkand is also an important cultural centre 
of a Persian literary renaissance. In the 990s the Samanids 
begin to lose power east of the Oxus to the Kharakhanid 
Turks, and in the West to: 

The Spanish kingdom of al-Andalus 

912-61 Rule of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, an absolute ruler. 

XX . Chronology 

969-1027 Cordova a centre of learning. 

1010 Central power weakens and petty emirates establish 

local rule. 
1064 Death of Ibn Hazm, poet, vizier and theologian. 
1085 Toledo falls to the Christian armies of the Reconquista. 

The Hamdanids 

929-1003 Arab tribesmen, the Hamdanids rule Aleppo and 
Mosul. Court patronage of scholars, historians, poets and 

983 Death of Abu Nasr al-Farabi, Faylasuf and court musi- 
cian at Aleppo. 

The Buyids 

C. 930-1030 Twelver Shiis and mountain dwellers from Day- 
lam in Iran, the Buyids begin to seize power in western 
Iran during the 930s. 

945 The Buyids seize power in Baghdad, south Iraq and 

Baghdad begins to lose its prominence to Shiraz, which 
becomes a centre of learning. 

983 Buyid unit begins to disintegrate. They eventually suc- 
cumb to Mahmud of Ghaznah in Rayy (1030) and the 
Ghaznavids in the plateau areas of western Iran. 

The Ikshids 

935-69 Founded by the Turk Muhammad ibn Tugh, the Ik- 
shids rule Egypt, Syria and the Hijaz. 

The Shii Fatimids 

969-1 171 (Originally established in Tunisia in 909) the Fa- 
timids rule North Africa, Egypt and parts of Syria, estab- 
lishing a rival caliphate. 

983 The Fatimids move their capital to Cairo, which be- 

Chronology . xxi 

comes a centre of Shii learning, and build the madrasah of 
al-Azhar there. 

976-1 11 8 The Ghaznavids 

999-1030 Mahmud of Ghaznah establishes a permanent 

Muslim power in north India, and seizes power from the 

Samanids in Iran. A brilliant court. 
1037 Death in Hamadan of the great Faylasuf Ibn Sina (Avi- 

cenna in the West). 

990-1 11 8 The Seljuk Empire 

990s The Seljuk Turkish family from Central Asia convert 
to Islam. In the early eleventh century they enter Trans - 
oxania and Kwarazm with their cavalry of nomadic 

1030s The Seljuks in Khurasan. 

1040 They take western Iran from the Ghaznavids, and enter 

1055 Sultan Togril-beg rules the Seljuk Empire from Bagh- 
dad as the lieutenant of the Abbasid caliphs. 

1063-73 The rule of Sultan Arp Arslan. 

1065-67 The Nizamiyyah madrasah built in Baghdad. 

1073-92 Malikshah rules the empire, with Nizalmulmulk as 
The Turkish troops enter Syria and Anatolia. 

1071 Seljuk troops defeat the Byzantines at the Battle of 
Manzikurt, establish themselves in Anatolia, reaching the 
Aegean Sea (1080). 

Seljuks war with the Fatimids and local rulers in Syria. 

1094 Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus I asks Western 
Christendom for help against the Seljuk infiltration of his 

1095 Pope Urban Ilpreaches the First Crusade. 
1099 The Crusaders conquer Jerusalem. 

xxii . Chronology 

The Crusaders establish four Crusader states in Pales- 
tine, Anatolia and Syria. 

1090s The Ismailis begin their revolt against Seljuk and 
Sunni hegemony. Local Turkish dynasties start to arise in 
various parts of the empire. 

Ill 1 Death in Baghdad of the theologian and legist al- 

11 18 Seljuk domains break up into independent principalities. 

1118-1 258 Small dynasties now function independently, ac- 
knowledging the suzerainty of the Abbasid caliphate, but 
in practice bowing only to the superior power of a neigh- 
bouring dynasty. 

1127-73 The Zangdid dynasty, founded by a Seljuk com- 
mander, begins to unite Syria in a riposte against the Cru- 
saders. Notable examples are: 

1130-1269 The Almohads, a Sunni dynasty, attempt to re- 
form North Africa and Spain according to the principles of 

11 50-1 220 The Khwarazmshahs from north-west Transoxa- 
nia defeat the remaining small Seljuk dynasties in Iran. 

1171-1250 The Ayyubid dynasty, founded by the Kurdish 
general Saladin, continues the Zanghid campaign against 
the Crusaders, defeats the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt, and 
converts it to Sunni Islam. 

1180-1225 Al-Nasir, Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, attempts to 
use the Islamic fituwwah guilds as a basis for more effective 

1187 Saladin defeats the Crusaders at the battle of Hattin 
and restores Jerusalem to Islam. 

1191 The Sufi mystic and philosopher Yahya Suhrawardi 
dies, possibly executed by the Ayyubids for heresy, in 

1193 The Iranian Ghuid dynasty takes Delhi and establishes 
rule in India. 

Chronology . xxiii 

1198 Death in Cordova of the Faylasuf Ibn Rushd (known in 
the West as Averroes). 

1199-1220 Ala al-Din Mahmoud, Khwarazmshah, deter- 
mines to create a great Iranian monarchy. 

1205-87 A Turkish slave dynasty defeats the Ghuids in 
India and establishes the Sultanate of Delhi, ruling the 
whole of the Ganges Valley. But soon these smaller dynas- 
ties have to face the Mongol threat. 

1220-31 The first great Mongol raids, with immense de- 
struction of cities. 

1224-1391 The Golden Horde Mongols rule the lands 
north of the Caspian and Black Seas and convert to Islam. 

1225 The Almohads abandon Spain, where Muslim power is 
eventually reduced to the small Kingdom of Granada. 

1227 Death of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan. 

1227-1358 The Chaghaytay Mongol Khans rule Transoxa- 
nia and convert to Islam. 

1228-1551 The Hafsid dynasty replaces the Almohads in 

1240 Death of the Sufi philosopher Muid ad-Din Ibn al-Arabi. 

1250 The Mamluks, a slave corps, overthrow the Ayyubids 
and establish a ruling dynasty in Egypt and Syria. 

1256-1335 The Mongol 11-Khans rule Iraq and Iran and 
convert to Islam. 

1258 They destroy Baghdad. 

1260 The Mamluk sultan Baibars defeats the Mongol H- 
Khans at the Battle of Ain Jalut, and goes on to destroy 
many of the remaining strongholds on the Syrian coast. 

1273 Death of Jalal al-Din Rumi, founder of the Whirling 
Dervishes, in Anatolia. 

1288 Uthman, a ghazi on the Byzantine frontier, founds the 
Ottoman dynasty in Anatolia. 

1326-59 Orkhan, Uthman's son, establishes an independent 
Ottoman state, with its capital at Brusa, and dominates the 
declining Byzantine Empire. 

xxiv . Chronology 

1328 Death of the reformer Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah in Da- 

1334-53 Yusuf, king of Granada, builds the Alhambra, 
which is completed by his son. 

1369-1405 Timur Lenk (Tamburlaine) revives Chaghaytay 
Mongol power in Samarkand, conquers much of the Mid- 
dle East and Anatolia, and sacks Delhi. But his empire dis- 
integrates after his death. 

1389 The Ottomans subdue the Balkans by defeating the 
Serbians at Kosovo Field. They go on to extend their 
power in Anatolia, but are overthrown by Timur Lenk in 

1403-21 Afier the death of Timur, Mehmed I revives the 
Ottoman state. 

1406 Death of the Faylasuf and historian Ibn Khaldun. 

1421-51 Murad I asserts Ottoman power against Hungary 
and the West. 

1453 Memed II "the Conquerer" conquers Constantinople, 
henceforce known as Istanbul, and makes it the capital of 
the Ottoman Empire. 

1492 The Muslim Kingdom of Granada is conquered by the 
Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. 

1502-24 Ismail, head of the Safavid Sufi Order, conquers 
Iran, where he establishes the Safavid Empire. Twelver 
Shiism is now the official religion of Iran and Ismail's bru- 
tal attempts to suppress Sunni Islam in his domains inspire 
a persecution of Shiis in the Ottoman Empire. 

1510 Ismail pushes the Sunni Uzbeks out of Khurasan and 
establishes Shii rule there. 

15 13 Portuguese traders reach south China. 

1514 Sultan Selim I defeats Shah Ismail's Safavid army at the 
Battle of Chaldiran, halting the Safavid westward advance 
into Ottoman territory. 

1517 The Ottomans conquer Egypt and Syria from the 

Chronology . XXV 

1520-66 Suleiman, known in the West as the Magnificent, 
expands the Ottoman Empire and develops its distinctive 

1522 The Ottomans take Rhodes. 

1524-76 Tahmasp I, the second Safavid shah of Iran, 
strengthens Shii dominance there. His court becomes a 
centre of art, especially known for its painting. 

1526 Babur establishes the Moghul Empire in India. 

1529 The Ottomans besiege Vienna. 

1542 The Portuguese establish the first European commer- 
cial empire. 

1543 The Ottomans subjugate Hungary. 

1552-56 The Russians conquer the old Mongol khanates of 
Kazan and Astrakhan on the River Volga. 

1560-1605 Akbar is the emperor of Moghul India, which 
reaches the zenith of its power. Akbar fosters Hindu- 
Muslim cooperation, and conquers territory in south India. 
He presides over a cultural renaissance. 

The Ottomans and Portuguese conduct a naval war in 
the Indian Ocean. 

1570 The Ottomans take Cyprus. 

1578 Death of the Ottoman court architect Sinan Pasha. 

1580s Portuguese weakened in India. 

1588-1629 Shah Abbas I rules the Safavid Empire in Iran, 
building a magnificent court in Isfahan. Drives the Ot- 
tomans out of Azerbaijan and Iraq. 

1590s The Dutch begin to trade in India. 

1601 The Dutch begin to seize Portuguese holdings. 

1602 Death of the Sufi historian Abdulfazl Allami. 
1625 Death of the reformer Ahmad Sirhindi. 

1627-58 Shah Jihan rules the Moghul Empire, which 
reaches the height of its refinement. Builds the Taj Mahal. 

1631 Death of the Shii philosopher Mir Dimad in Isfahan. 

1640 Death of the Iranian philosopher and mystic Mulla 

xxvi . Chronology 

1 656 Ottoman viziers halt the decline of the Ottoman Em- 

1658-1707 Aurengzebe, the last of the major Moghul em- 
perors, tries to Islamize all India, but inspires lasting 
Hindu and Sikh hostility. 

1 669 Ottomans take Crete from Venice. 

1 681 The Ottomans cede Kiev to Russia. 

1 683 The Ottomans fail in their second siege of Vienna, but 
they recover Iraq from the Safavids. 

1 699 Treaty of Carlowicz cedes Ottoman Hungary to Aus- 
tria, the first major Ottoman reversal. 

1 700 Death of Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, the influential Shii 
alim of Iran. 

1 707-1 2 The Moghul Empire loses its southern and eastern 

1715 Rise of the Austrian and Prussian kingdoms. 

1718-30 Sultan Ahmad III attempts the first Westernizing 
reform in the Ottoman Empire, but the reforms end with 
the revolt of the Janissaries. 

1722 Afghan rebels attack Isfahan and massacre the nobility. 

1 726 Nadir Shah temporarily restores the military power of 
the Iranian Shii Empire. 

1739 Nadir Shah sacks Delhi and puts an end to effective 
Moghul rule in India. The Hindus, Sikhs and Afghans 
compete for power. 

Nadir Shah tries to return Iran to Sunni Islam. As a re- 
sult, the leading Iranian mujtahids leave Iran and take 
refuge in Ottoman Iraq, where they establish a power base 
independent of the shahs. 

1748 Nadir Shah is assassinated. A period of anarchy ensues, 
during which the Iranians who adhere to the Usuli position 
achieve predominance, thus providing the people with a 
source of legality and order. 

1762 Death of Shah Vali-ullah, the Sufi reformer, in India. 

Chronology . xxvii 

1763 The British expand their control over the dismembered 
Indian states. 

1774 Ottomans totally defeated by the Russians. They lose 
the Crimea and the tsar becomes the "protector" of Ortho- 
dox Christians in Ottoman lands. 

1779 Aqa Muhammad Khan begins to found the Qajar dy- 
nasty in Iran, which by the end of the century is able to re- 
store strong government. 

1789 The French Revolution. 

1789-1807 Selim III lays the groundwork for new Western- 
izing reforms in the Ottoman Empire, and establishes the 
first formal Ottoman embassies in European capitals. 

1792 Death of the militant Arabian reformer Muhammad 
ibn Abd al-Wahhab. 

1793 The first Protestant missionaries arrive in India. 
1797-1818 Fath Ali Shah rules Iran. Rise of British and Rus- 
sian influence there. 

1798-1801 Napoleon occupies Egypt. 

1803-13 The Wahhabis occupy the Arabian Hijaz, wresting 

it from Ottoman control. 
1805-48 Muhammad Ali attempts to modernize Egypt. 
1808-39 Sultan Mahmud II introduces the modernizing 

"Tanzimat" reforms in the Ottoman Empire. 

1814 Treaty of Gulistan: Caucasian territory is ceded to 

1815 Serbian revolt against Ottoman control. 

1821 Greek war of independence against the Ottomans. 

1830 France occupies Algeria. 

1831 Muhammad Ali occupies Ottoman Syria and pene- 
trates deeply into Anatolia, creating within the Ottoman 
Empire a virtually independent imperium in imperio. The 
European powers intervene to save the Ottoman Empire 
and force Muhammad Ali to withdraw from Syria (1841). 

1836 Death of the Neo-Sufi reformer Ahmad ibn Idris. 

xxviii . Chronology 

1839 The British occupy Aden. 

1839-61 Sultan Abdulhamid inaugurates more modernizing 
reforms to halt the decline of the Ottoman Empire. 

184349 The British occupy the Indus Basin. 

1854-56 The Crimean War, which arises from European ri- 
valry over the protection of Christian minorities in the Ot- 
toman Empire. 

Said Pasha, governor of Egypt, grants the Suez Canal 
concession to the French. Egypt contracts its first foreign 

1857-58 Indian Mutiny against British rule. The British for- 
mally depose the last Moghul emperor. Sir Sayyid Ahmad 
Khan argues for the reform of Islam on Western lines and 
the adoption of British culture. 

1860-61 Afier a massacre of Christians by Druze rebels in 
Lebanon, the French demand that it become an au- 
tonomous province with a French governor. 

1861-76 Sultan Abdulaziz continues the reform of the Ot- 
toman Empire, but contracts huge foreign loans which re- 
sult in the bankruptcy of the empire and the control of 
Ottoman finances by European governments. 

1863-79 Ismail Pasha, governor of Egypt, undertakes exten- 
sive modernization, but contracts foreign loans, which re- 
sult in bankruptcy, the sale of the Suez Canal to the British 
(1875) and the establishment of European control of 
Egyptian finances. 

1871-79 Al-Afghani, the Iranian reformer, resides in Egypt 
and founds a circle of Egyptian reformers, including 
Muhammad Abdu. Their aim is to halt the cultural hege- 
mony of Europe by a revitalization and modernization of 

1872 Intensification of British-Russian rivalry in Iran. 

1876 The Ottoman sultan Abdulaziz is deposed by a palace 
coup. Abdulhamid II is persuaded to promulgate the first 

Chronology . xxix 

Ottoman constitution, which, however, the sultan later 
suspends. Major Ottoman reforms in education, trans- 
portation and communications. 

1879 Ismail Pasha is deposed. 

1881 France occupies Tunisia. 

1881-82 A mutiny of native Egyptian officers joins forces 
with Constitutionalists and reformers, who manage to im- 
pose their government on Khedive Tewfiq. But a popular 
uprising leads to the British military occupation of Egypt 
with Lord Cromer as governor (1882-1907) 
Secret societies campaign for Syrian independence. 

1889 Britain occupies the Sudan. 

1892 The Tobacco Crisis in Iran. Afatwah by a leading muj- 
tahid forces the shah to rescind the tobacco concession he 
had given to the British. 

1894 Between 10,000 and 20,000 Armenian revolutionaries 
against Ottoman rule are brutally massacred. 

1896 Nasiruddin Shah of Iran assassinated by one of al- 
Afghani's disciples. 

1897 The first Zionist conference is held in Basel. Its ulti- 
mate aim is to create a Jewish state in the Ottoman 
province of Palestine. 

Death of al-Afghani. 
1901 Oil is discovered in Iran and the concession given to the 

1903-11 Fears that the British intend to divide Hindus and 

Muslims in India, following the British partition of Bengal, 

lead to communalist anxiety and the formation of the 

Muslim League (1906). 

1905 Death of the Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abdu. 

1906 Constitutional Revolution in Iran forces the shah to 
proclaim a constitution and establish a Majlis, but an 
Anglo-Russian agreement (1907) and a Russian-supported 
counter-coup by the shah revokes the constitution. 

XXX . Chronology 

1908 The Young Turk revolution forces the sultan to restore 
the constitution. 

1914-18 The First World War. 

Egypt is declared a protectorate by Britain; Iran is occu- 
pied by British and Russian troops. 

1916-2 1 The Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in al- 
liance with the British. 

1917 The Balfour Declaration formally gives British support 
to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. 

1919-2 1 The Turkish War of independence. Atatiirk is able 
to keep the European powers at bay and set up an inde- 
pendent Turkish state. He adopts radical secularizing and 
modernizing policies (1924-28). 

1920 The publication of the Sykes-Picot agreement: in the 
wake of the Ottoman defeat in the First World War, its 
provinces are divided between the British and the French, 
who establish mandates and protectorates, even though 
the Arabs had been promised independence after the war. 

1920-22 Gandhi mobilizes the Indian masses in two civil 
disobedience campaigns against British rule. 

1921 Reza Khan leads a successful coup d'e'tat in Iran and 
founds the Pahlavi dynasty. He introduces a brutal mod- 
ernizing and secularizing policy in Iran. 

1922 Egypt granted formal independence, but Britain retains 
control of defence, foreign policy and the Sudan. Between 
1923 and 1930, the popular Wafd Party wins three large 
electoral victories, but each time it is forced to resign by 
either the British or the king. 

1932 Kingdom of Saudi Arabia founded. 

1935 Death of the Muslim reformer and journalist Rashid 

Rida, founder of the Salafiyyah movement in Egypt. 
1938 Death of the Indian poet and philosopher Muhammad 

193945 The Second World War. The British depose Reza 

Shah, who is succeeded by his son, Muhammad Reza (1944). 

Chronology . xxxi 

1 940s The Muslim Brotherhood becomes the most powerful 
political force in Egypt. 

1 945 Turkey joins the United Nations and becomes a multi- 
party state (1947). Formation of the Arab League. 

1946 Communal rioting in India, following the Muslim 
League's campaign for a separate state. 

1 947 The creation of Pakistan from areas with a large Mus- 
lim majority. The partition of India leads to massacres and 
killings of both Muslims and Hindus. 

1 948 The end of the British Mandate in Palestine and the 
creation of the Jewish state of Israel, as a result of a United 
Nations declaration. Israeli forces inflict a devastating de- 
feat on the five Arab armies who invade the new Jewish 
state. Some 750,000 Palestinians leave the country during 
the hostilities and are not permitted to return to their 
homes afterwards. 

1951-53 Muhammad Musaddiq and the National Front 
party nationalise Iranian oil. After anti-royalist demon- 
strations, the shah flees Iran but is returned to power in a 
coup organized by the CIA and British intelligence and 
new agreements are made with European oil companies. 

1952 In Egypt, the revolution of the Free Officers led by 
Jamal Abd al-Nasser deposes King Faruk. Al-Nasser sup- 
presses the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisons thousands 
of Brothers in concentration camps. 

1 954 The secularist National Liberation Front (FLN) leads a 
revolution against French colonial rule in Algeria. 

1 956 The first constitution of Pakistan is ratified. 
Jamal Abd al-Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal. 

1 957 Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran founds the se- 
cret police force S A V A K with the help of t h e American 
CIA and the Israeli MOSSAD. 

1 958-69 The secularist government of General Muhammad 

Ayub Khan in Pakistan. 
1 961 Muhammad Reza Phalavi, shah of Iran, announces the 

xxxii . Chronology 

White Revolution of modernization, which further mar- 
ginalizes religion and exacerbates divisions within Iranian 
1963 The NLF establishes a socialist government in Algeria. 
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini attacks the Pahlavi regime, 
inspires street demonstrations throughout Iran, is impris- 
oned and eventually exiled to Iraq. 

1966 Al-Nasser orders the execution of the leading Egyp- 
tian fundamentalist ideologue Sayyid Qutb. 

1967 The Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neigh- 
bours. The Israeli victory and the humiliating Arab defeat 
lead to a religious revival throughout the Middle East, 
since the old secularist policies seem discredited. 

1970 Death of al-Nasser; he is succeeded by Anwar al-Sadat, 
who courts the Egyptian Islamists to gain their support. 

1971 Sheikh Ahmad Yasin founds Mujamah (Congress), a 
welfare organization, and campaigns against the secular 
nationalism of the PLO, seeking an Islamic identity for 
Palestine; Mujamah is supported by Israel. 

1971-77 Prime Minister Ali Bhutto of Pakistan leads a left- 
ist and secularist government, which makes concessions to 
the Islamists, but these measures are not sufficient. 

1973 Egypt and Syria attack Israel on Y o m Kippur, and make 
such an impressive showing on the battlefield that al-Sadat 
is in a position to make a daring peace initiative with Israel, 
signing the Camp David Accords in 1978. 

1977-88 The devout Muslim Zia al-Haqq leads a success- 
ful coup in Pakistan, and creates a more overtly Islamic 
government, which still, however, separates religion from 

1978-79 The Iranian Revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini be- 
comes the Supreme Faqih of the Islamic Republic (1979-89). 

1979 Death of the Pakistani fundamentalist ideologue Abu 
Ala Mawdudi. 

Chronology . xxxiii 

Several hundred Sunni fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia 
occupy the Kabah in Mecca and proclaim their leader as 
Mahdi; the state suppresses the uprising. 

1979-81 American hostages are held prisoner in the United 
States embassy in Tehran. 

1981 President Anwar al-Sadat is murdered by Muslim ex- 
temists, who condemn his unjust and coercive treatment of 
the Egyptian people and his peace treaty with Israel. 

1987 The intifadah, a popular Palestinian uprising in protest 
against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the 
Gaza Strip. HAMAS, an offshoot of Mujamah, now enters 
the fray against Israel as well as against the PLO. 

1989 Ayatollah Khomeini issues afatwah against the British 
author Salman Rushdie for his allegedly blasphemous por- 
trayal of the Prophet Muhammad in his novel The Satanic 
Verses. A month later, the fatwah is condemned as un- 
Islamic by forty-eight out of the forty-nine member states 
of the Islamic conference. 

After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah 
Khameini becomes the Supreme Faqih of Iran and the 
pragmatic Hojjat 01-Islam Rafsanjani becomes president. 

1990 The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) scores major victo- 
ries in the Algerian local elections against the secularist 
FLN. It looks set for victory in the 1992 national elections. 

President Saddam Hussein, a secularist ruler, invades 
Kuwait; in response the United States and its Western and 
Middle Eastern allies launch Operation Desert Storm 
against Iraq (199 1). 
1992 The military stages a coup to prevent the FIS from 
coming to power in Algeria, and suppresses the movement. 
As a result, the more radical members launch a horrific 
terror campaign. 

Members of the Hindu BJP dismantle the Mosque of 
Babur at Ayodhya. 

xxxiv . Chronology 

1992-99 Serbian and Croatian nationalists systematically 
kill and force the Muslim inhabitants of Bosnia and 
Kosovo to leave their homes. 

1993 Israel and the Palestinians sign the Oslo Accords. 

1994 Following the assassination of twenty-nine Muslims in 
the Hebron mosque by a Jewish extremist, HAMAS sui- 
cide bombers attack Jewish civilians in Israel. 

President Yitzak Rabin is assassinated by a Jewish ex- 
tremist for signing the Oslo accords. 

The Taliban fundamentalists come to power in 

1997 The liberal cleric Hojjat OlTslam Sayyid Khatami is 
elected president of Iran in a landslide victory. 

1998 President Khatami dissociates his government from 
Khomeini's/a?vra/z against Salman Rushdie. 

2001 September 11. Nineteen Muslim extremists, members 
of Osama bin Laden's group Al-Qaeda, hijack American 
passenger planes and drive them into the World Trade 
Center and the Pentagon. 

October 7. In retaliation, the United States initiates a 
military campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in 


THE PROPHET (570.632) 

During the month of Ramadan in 610 C.E.,an Arab business- 
man had an experience that changed the history of the world. 
Every year at this time, Muhammad ibn Abdallah used to re- 
tire to a cave on the summit of Mount Hira, just outside 
Mecca in the Arabian Hijaz, where he prayed, fasted and gave 
alms to the poor. He had long been worried by what he per- 
ceived to be a crisis in Arab society. In recent decades his 
tribe, the Quraysh, had become rich by trading in the sur- 
rounding countries. Mecca had become a thriving mercantile 
city, but in the aggressive stampede for wealth some of the old 
tribal values had been lost. Instead of looking after the weaker 
members of the tribe, as the nomadic code prescribed, the 
Quraysh were now intent on making money at the expense of 
some of the tribe's poorer family groupings, or clans. There 
was also spiritual restlessness in Mecca and throughout the 
peninsula. Arabs knew that Judaism and Christianity, which 
were practised in the Byzantine and Persian empires, were 
more sophisticated than their own pagan traditions. Some had 
come to believe that the High God of their pantheon, al-Lah 
(whose name simply meant "the God"), was the deity wor- 
shipped by the Jews and the Christians, but he had sent the 
Arabs no prophet and no scripture in their own language. In- 
deed, the Jews and Christians whom they met often taunted 
the Arabs for being left out of the divine plan. Throughout 
Arabia one tribe fought another, in a murderous cycle of 
vendetta and counter-vendetta. It seemed to many of the 
more thoughtful people in Arabia that the Arabs were a lost 
people, exiled forever from the civilized world and ignored 
by God himself. But that changed on the night of 17 Ram- 

4 . Karen Armstrong 

adan, when Muhammad woke to find himself overpowered 
by a devastating presence, which squeezed him tightly until 
he heard the first words of a new Arab's scripture pouring 
from his lips. 

For the first two years, Muhammad kept quiet about his 
experience. He had new revelations, but confided only in his 
wife Khadija and her cousin Waraqa ibn Nawfal, a Christian. 
Both were convinced that these revelations came from God, 
but it was only in 612 that Muhammad felt empowered to 
preach, and gradually gained converts: his young cousin Ali 
ibn Abi Talib, his friend Abu Bakr, and the young merchant 
Uthman ibn Affan from the powerful Umayyad family. Many 
of the converts, including a significant number of women, 
were from the poorer clans; others were unhappy about the 
new inequity in Mecca, which they felt was alien to the Arab 
spirit. Muhammad's message was simple. He taught the Arabs 
no new doctrines about God: most of the Quraysh were al- 
ready convinced that Allah had created the world and would 
judge humanity in the Last Days, as Jews and Christians be- 
lieved. Muhammad did not think that he was founding a new 
religion, but that he was merely bringing the old faith in the 
One God to the Arabs, who had never had a prophet before. It 
was wrong, he insisted, to build a private fortune, but good to 
share wealth and create a society where the weak and vulner- 
able were treated with respect. If the Quraysh did not mend 
their ways, their society would collapse (as had other unjust 
societies in the past) because they were violating the funda- 
mental laws of existence. 

This was the core teaching of the new scripture, called the 
guran (recitation) because believers, most of whom, including 
Muhammad himself, were illiterate, imbibed its teachings by 
listening to public readings of its chapters (surahs). The 
Quran was revealed to Muhammad verse by verse, surah by 
surah during the next twenty-one years, often in response to a 

Islam . 5 

crisis or a question that had arisen in the little community of 
the faithful. The revelations were painful to Muhammad, who 
used to say: "Never once did I receive a revelation, without 
thinking that my soul had been torn away from me.'" In the 
early days, the impact was so frightening that his whole body 
was convulsed; he would often sweat profusely, even on a cool 
day, experience a great heaviness, or hear strange sounds and 
voices. In purely secular terms, we could say that Muhammad 
had perceived the great problems confronting his people at a 
deeper level than most of his contemporaries, and that as he 
"listened" to events, he had to delve deeply and painfully into 
his inner being to find a solution that was not only politically 
viable but spiritually illuminating. He was also creating a new 
literary form and a masterpiece of Arab prose and poetry. 
Many of the first believers were converted by the sheer 
beauty of the Quran, which resonated with their deepest as- 
pirations, cutting through their intellectual preconceptions in 
the manner of great art, and inspiring them, at a level more 
profound than the cerebral, to alter their whole way of life. 
One of the most dramatic of these conversions was that of 
Umar ibn al-Khattab, who was devoted to the old paganism, 
passionately opposed to Muhammad's message, and was de- 
termined to wipe out the new sect. But he was also an expert 
in Arabian poetry, and the first time he heard the words of the 
Quran he was overcome by their extraordinary eloquence. As 
he said, the language broke through all his reservations about 
its message: "When I heard the Quran my heart was softened 
and I wept, and Islam entered into me. "2 

The new sect would eventually be called islam (surrender); 
a muslim was a man or a woman who had made this submission 
of their entire being to Allah and his demand that human be- 
ings behave to one another with justice, equity and compas- 
sion. It was an attitude expressed in the prostrations of the 
ritual prayer (salat) which Muslims were required to make 

6 . Karen Armstrong 

three times a day. (Later this prayer would be increased to five 
times daily.) The old tribal ethic had been egalitarian; Arabs 
did not approve of the idea of monarchy, and it was abhorrent 
to them to grovel on the ground like slaves. But the prostra- 
tions were designed to counter the hard arrogance and self- 
sufficiency that was growing apace in Mecca. The postures of 
their bodies would re-educate the Muslims, teaching them to 
lay aside their pride and selfishness, and recall that before 
God they were nothing. In order to comply with the stern 
teaching of the Quran, Muslims were also required to give a 
regular proportion of their income to the poor in alms (zakat). 
They would also fast during Ramadan to remind themselves 
of the privations of the poor, who could not eat or drink 
whenever they chose. 

Social justice was, therefore, the crucial virtue of Islam. 
Muslims were commanded as their first duty to build a com- 
munity (ummah) characterized by practical compassion, in 
which there was a fair distribution of wealth. This was far more 
important than any doctrinal teaching about God. In fact the 
Quran has a negative view of theological speculation, which it 
calls zannah, self-indulgent whimsy about ineffable matters 
that nobody can ascertain one way or the other. It seemed 
pointless to argue about such abstruse dogmas; far more crucial 
was the effort (jihad) to live in the way that God had intended 
for human beings. The political and social welfare of the 
umrrch would have sacramental value for Muslims. If the 
ummah prospered, it was a sign that Muslims were living ac- 
cording to Gods will, and the experience of living in a truly is- 
lamic community, which made this existential surrender to the 
divine, would give Muslims intimations of sacred transcen- 
dence. Consequently, they would be affected as profoundly by 
any misfortune or humiliation suffered b y the u m m a h a s Chris- 
tians by the spectacle of somebody blasphemously trampling 
on the Bible or ripping the Eucharistic host apart. 

Islam . 7 

This social concern had always been an essential part of 
the visions of the great world religions, which had developed 
during what historians have called the Axial Age (c. 700 BCE. 
to 200 B.C.E.), when civilization, as we know it, developed, to- 
gether with the confessional faiths which have continued to 
nourish humanity: Taoism and Confucianism in China; Hin- 
duism and Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent; monothe- 
ism in the Middle East; and rationalism in Europe. These 
faiths all reformed the old paganism, which was no longer ad- 
equate in the larger and more complex societies that evolved 
once people had created a mercantile economy capable of 
supporting this cultural effort. In the larger states, people ac- 
quired broader horizons, and the old local cults ceased to be 
appropriate; increasingly, the Axial Age faiths focused on a 
single deity or supreme symbol of transcendence. Each was 
concerned about the fundamental injustice of their society. 
All pre-modern civilizations were based economically upon a 
surplus of agricultural produce; they therefore depended 
upon the labour of peasants who could not enjoy their high 
culture, which was only for an elite. To counter this, the new 
faiths stressed the importance of compassion. Arabia had re- 
mained outside the civilized world. Its intractable climate 
meant that the Arabs lived on the brink of starvation; there 
seemed no way that they could acquire an agrarian surplus 
that would put them on a footing with Sassanid Persia or 
Byzantium. But when the Quraysh began to develop a market 
economy their perspective began to change. Many were still 
happy with the old paganism, but there was a growing ten- 
dency to worship only one God; and there was, as we have 
seen, a growing unease about the inequity of the new civiliza- 
tion that was developing in Mecca. The Arabs were now 
ready for an Axial Age faith of their own. 

But that did not mean a wholesale rejection of tradition. 
The Axial Age prophets and reformers all built on the old 

8 . Karen Armstrong 

pagan rites of their region, and Muhammad would do the 
same. He did demand that they ignore the cult of such popu- 
lar Arabian goddesses as Manat, al-Lat and al-Uzzah, how- 
ever, and worship Allah alone. The pagan deities are said in 
the Quran to be like weak tribal chiefs, who were a liability 
for their people, because they could not give them adequate 
protection. The Quran did not put forward any philosophical 
arguments for monotheism; its approach was practical, and, as 
such, it appealed to the pragmatic Arabs. The old religion, the 
Quran claimed, was simply not working3 There was spiritual 
malaise, chronic and destructive warfare, and an injustice that 
violated the best Arab traditions and tribal codes. The way 
forward lay in a single God and a unified ummah, which was 
governed by justice and equity. 

Radical as this sounded, the Quran insisted that its mes- 
sage was simply a "reminder" of truths that everybody knew? 
This was the primordial faith that had been preached to the 
whole of humanity by the prophets of the past. God had not 
left human beings in ignorance about the way they should 
live: he had sent messengers to every people on the face of the 
earth. Islamic tradition would later assert that there had been 
124,000 such prophets, a symbolic number suggesting infinity. 
All had brought their people a divinely inspired scripture; 
they might express the truths of God's religion differently, 
but essentially the message was always the same. Now at last 
God had sent the Quraysh a prophet and a scripture. Con- 
stantly the Quran points out that Muhammad had not come 
to cancel the older religions, to contradict their prophets or to 
start a new faith. His message is the same as that of Abraham, 
Moses, David, Solomon, or Jesus.' The Quran mentions only 
those prophets who were known to the Arabs, but today Mus- 
lim scholars argue that had Muhammad known about the 
Buddhists or the Hindus, the Australian Aborigines or the 
Native Americans, the Quran would have endorsed their 


Muhammad's World: Arabia c. 610 CE | 

Byiant ne Empire 
Pmiari tmpire 

10 . Karen Armstrong 

sages too, because all rightly guided religion that submitted 
wholly to God, refused to worship man-made deities and 
preached that justice and equality came from the same divine 
source. Hence Muhammad never asked Jews or Christians to 
accept Islam, unless they particularly wished to do so, be- 
cause they had received perfectly valid revelations of their 
own. The Quran insists strongly that "there shall be no coer- 
cion in matters of faith,"6 and commands Muslims to respect 
the beliefs of Jews and Christians, whom the Quran calls ahl 
al-kitab, a phrase usually translated "People of the Book" but 
which is more accurately rendered "people of an earlier rev- 

Do not argue with the followers of earlier revelation otherwise 
than in a most kindly manner-unless it be such of them as are 
bent on evil-doing-and say: "We believe in that which has been 
bestowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has been 
bestowed upon you; for our God and your God is one and the 
same, and it is unto Him that we [all] surrender ourselves." 7 

It is only our more modern culture that can afford to prize 
originality and jettison tradition wholesale. In pre-modern 
society, continuity was crucial. Muhammad did not envisage 
a violent rupture with the past or with other faith communi- 
ties. He wanted to root the new scripture in the spiritual land- 
scape of Arabia. 

Hence Muslims continued to perform the customary ritu- 
als at the Kabah, the cube-shaped shrine in the heart of 
Mecca, the most important centre of worship in Arabia. It was 
extremely ancient even in Muhammad's time, and the origi- 
nal meaning of the cult associated with it had been forgotten, 
but it was still loved by the Arabs, who assembled each year 
for the ha))' pilgrimage from all over the peninsula. They 
would circle the shrine seven times, following the direction of 
the sun around the earth; kiss the Black Stone embedded in 

Islam . II 

the wall of the Kabah, which was probably a meteorite that 
had once hurtled to the ground, linking the site to the heav- 
enly world. These rites (known as the umrah) could be per- 
formed at any time, but during the hajj pilgrims would also 
run from the steps of al-Safa beside the Kabah across the val- 
ley to al-Marwah, where they prayed. They then moved to the 
environs of Mecca: on the plain of Arafat, they stood all night 
in vigil; they rushed in a body to the hollow of Muzdalifah; 
hurled pebbles at a rock in Mina, shaved their heads, and on 
the Id al-Adha, the final day of the pilgrimage, they per- 
formed an animal sacrifice. 

The ideal of community was central to the cult of the 
Kabah. All violence was forbidden in Mecca and the sur- 
rounding countryside at all times. This had been a key fac- 
tor in the commercial success of the Quraysh, since it 
enabled Arabs to trade there without fearing the reprisals 
of vendetta warfare. During the hajj pilgrims were forbidden 
to carry arms, to argue, to kill game or even to kill an insect 
or speak a cross word. All this was clearly congenial to 
Muhammad's ideal for the ummah, and he was himself de- 
voted to the shrine, often made the umrah and liked to recite 
the Quran beside the Kabah. Officially, the shrine was dedi- 
cated to Hubal, a Nabatean deity, and there were 360 idols 
arranged around the Kabah, probably representing the days 
of the year. But by Muhammad's day, it seems that the 
Kabah was venerated as the shrine of Allah, the High God, 
and it is a mark of the widespread conviction that Allah was 
the same as the deity worshipped by monotheists that those 
Arabs in the northern tribes on the borders of the Byzantine 
Empire who had converted to Christianity used to make the 
hajj alongside the pagans. Yet for all this, in the early days of 
his mission, Muhammad still made the Muslims perform 
the salat prayer facing Jerusalem, the holy city of the ahlal- 
kitab, turning their backs on the pagan associations of the 

12 . Karen Armstrong 

Kabah. This expressed his longing to bring the Arabs into 
the monotheistic family. 

Muhammad acquired a small following and eventually 
some seventy families had converted to Islam. At first, the 
most powerful men in Mecca ignored the Muslims, but by 
616 they had become extremely angry with Muhammad who, 
they said, reviled the faith of their fathers, and was obviously 
a charlatan, who only pretended to be a prophet. They were 
particularly incensed by the Quran's description of the Last 
Judgement, which they dismissed as primitive and irrational. 
Arabs did not believe in the after life and should give no cre- 
dence to such "fairy tales. 1 " But they were especially con- 
cerned that in the Quran this Judaeo-Christian belief struck 
at the heart of their cut-throat capitalism. On the Last Day, 
Arabs were warned that the wealth and power of their tribe 
would not help them; each individual would be tried on his or 
her own merits: why had they not taken care of the poor? 
Why had they accumulated fortunes instead of sharing their 
money? Those Quraysh who were doing very well in the new 
Mecca were not likely to look kindly on this kind of talk, and 
the opposition grew, led by Abu al-Hakam (who is called Abu 
Jahl, "Father of Lies," in the Quran), Abu Sufyan, an ex- 
tremely intelligent man, who had once been a personal friend 
of Muhammad, and Suhayl ibn Amr, a devout pagan. They 
were all disturbed by the idea of abandoning the faith of their 
ancestors; all had relatives who had converted to Islam; and 
all feared that Muhammad was plotting to take over the lead- 
ership of Mecca. The Quran insisted that Muhammad had no 
political function but that he was simply a nadhir, a "warner," 9 
but how long would a man who claimed to receive instruc- 
tions from Allah accept the rulings of more ordinary mortals 
like themselves? 

Relations deteriorated sharply. Abu Jahl imposed a boycott 
on Muhammad's clan, forbidding the Quraysh to marry or 

Islam • 13 

trade with the Muslims. This meant that nobody could sell 
them any food. The ban lasted for two years, and the food 
shortages may well have been responsible for the death of 
Muhammad's beloved wife Khadija, and it certainly ruined 
some of the Muslims financially. Slaves who had converted to 
Islam were particularly badly treated, tied up, and left to burn 
in the blazing sun. Most seriously, in 619, after the ban had 
been lifted, Muhammad's uncle and protector (wali) Abu 
Talib died. Muhammad was an orphan; his parents had died 
in his infancy. Without a protector who would avenge his 
death, according to the harsh vendetta lore of Arabia, a man 
could be killed with impunity, and Muhammad had great dif- 
ficulty finding a Meccan chieftain who would become his pa- 
tron. The position of the ummah was becoming untenable in 
Mecca, and a new solution clearly had to be found. 

Muhammad was, therefore, ready to listen to a delegation 
of chiefs from Yathrib, an agricultural settlement some 250 
miles north of Mecca. A number of tribes had abandoned the 
nomadic way of life and settled there, but after centuries of 
warfare on the steppes found it impossible to live together 
peacefully. The whole settlement was caught up in one deadly 
feud after another. Some of these tribes had either converted 
to Judaism or were of Jewish descent, and so the people of 
Yathrib were accustomed to monotheistic ideas, were not in 
thrall to the old paganism and were desperate to find a new so- 
lution that would enable their people to live together in a sin- 
gle community. The envoys from Yathrib, who approached 
Muhammad during the hajj in 620, converted to Islam and 
made a pledge with the Muslims: each vowed that they would 
not fight each other, and would defend each other from com- 
mon enemies. Eventually, in 622, the Muslim families slipped 
away, one by one, and made the migration (hijrah)to Yathrib. 
Muhammad, whose new protector had recently died, was al- 
most assassinated before he and Abu Bakr were able to escape. 

14 . Karen Armstrong 

The hijrah marks the start of the Muslim era, because it 
was at this point that Muhammad was able to implement the 
Quranic ideal fully and that Islam became a factor in history. 
It was a revolutionary step. The hijrah was no mere change of 
address. In pre-Islamic Arabia the tribe was a sacred value. To 
turn your back on your blood-group and join another was un- 
heard of; it was essentially blasphemous, and the Quraysh 
could not condone this defection. They vowed to exterminate 
the ummah in Yathrib. Muhammad had become the head of a 
collection of tribal groups that were not bound together by 
blood but by a shared ideology, an astonishing innovation in 
Arabian society. Nobody was forced to convert to the religion 
of the Quran, but Muslims, pagans and Jews all belonged to 
one ummah could not attack one another, and vowed to give 
one another protection. News of this extraordinary new "su-i 
pertribe" spread, and though at the outset nobody thought 
that it had a chance of survival, it proved to be an inspiration 
that would bring peace to Arabia before the death of the 
Prophet in 632, just ten years after the hijrah. 

Yathrib would become known as al-Medinah (the City), 
because it became the pattern of the perfect Muslim society. 
When Muhammad arrived in Medina one of his first actions 
was to build a simple mosque ( masjid : literally, place of pros- 
tration). It was a rough building, which expressed the auster- 
ity of the early Islamic ideal. Tree trunks supported the roof, 
a stone marked the qiblah (the direction of prayer) and the 
Prophet stood on a tree trunk to preach. All future mosques 
would, as far as possible, be built according to this model. 
There was also a courtyard, where Muslims met to discuss all 
the concerns of the ummah — social, political and military as 
well as religious. Muhammad and his wives lived in small huts 
around the edge of the courtyard. Unlike a Christian church, 
which is separated from mundane activities and devoted only 
to worship, no activity was excluded from the mosque. In the 

Islam . 15 

Quranic vision there is no dichotomy between the sacred and 
the profane, the religious and the political, sexuality and wor- 
ship. The whole of life was potentially holy and had to be 
brought into the ambit of the divine. The aim was tawhid 
(making one), the integration of the whole of life in a unified 
community, which would give Muslims intimations of the 
Unity which is God. 

Muhammad's numerous wives have occasioned a good deal 
of prurient interest in the West, but it would be a mistake to 
imagine the Prophet basking decadently in sensual delight, 
like some of the later Islamic rulers. In Mecca, Muhammad 
had remained monogamous, married only to Khadija, even 
though polygamy was common in Arabia. Khadija was a good 
deal older than he, but bore him at least six children, of whom 
only four daughters survived. In Medina, Muhammad became 
a great sayyid (chief), and was expected to have a large harem, 
but most of these marriages were politically motivated. As he 
formed his new supertribe, he was eager to forge marriage ties 
with some of his closest companions, to bind them closer to- 
gether. His favourite new wife was Aisha, the daughter of Abu 
Bakr, and he also married Hafsah, the daughter of Umar ibn 
al-Khattab. He married two of his daughters to Uthman ibn 
Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib. Many of his other wives were 
older women, who were without protectors or were related to 
the chiefs of those tribes who became the allies of the ummah. 
None of them bore the Prophet any children." His wives 
were sometimes more of a hindrance than a pleasure. On one 
occasion, when they were squabbling about the division of 
booty after a raid, the Prophet threatened to divorce them all 
unless they lived more strictly in accordance with Islamic val- 
ues. " But it is still true that Muhammad was one of those rare 
men who truly enjoy the company of women. Some of his 
male companions were astonished by his leniency towards 
his wives and the way they stood up to him and answered him 

16 . Karen Armstrong 

back. Muhammad scrupulously helped with the chores, 
mended his own clothes and sought out the companionship of 
his wives. He often liked to take one of them on an expedi- 
tion, and would consult them and take their advice seriously. 
On one occasion his most intelligent wife, Umm Salamah, 
helped to prevent a mutiny. 

The emancipation of women was a project dear to the 
Prophet's heart. The Quran gave women rights of inheritance 
and divorce centuries before Western women were accorded 
such status. The Quran prescribes some degree of segrega- 
tion and veiling for the Prophet's wives, but there is nothing 
in the Quran that requires the veiling of all women or their 
seclusion in a separate part of the house. These customs were 
adopted some three or four generations after the Prophet's 
death. Muslims at that time were copying the Greek Chris- 
tians of Byzantium, who had long veiled and segregated their 
women in this manner; they also appropriated some of their 
Christian misogyny. The Quran makes men and women part- 
ners before God, with identical duties and responsibilities. 12 
The Quran also came to permit polygamy; at a time when 
Muslims were being killed in the wars against Mecca, and 
women were left without protectors, men were permitted to 
have up to four wives provided that they treat them all with 
absolute equality and show no signs of favouring one rather 
than the others. 13 The women of the first ummah in Medina 
took full part in its public life, and some, according to Arab 
custom, fought alongside the men in battle. They did not 
seem to have experienced Islam as an oppressive religion, 
though later, as happened in Christianity, men would hijack 
the faith and bring it into line with the prevailing patriarchy. 

In the early years at Medina there were two important de- 
velopments. Muhammad had been greatly excited by the 
prospect of working closely with the Jewish tribes, and had 
even, shortly before the hijrah, introduced some practices 

Islam . 17 

(such as communal prayer on Friday afternoons, when Jews 
would be preparing for the Sabbath, and a fast on the Jewish 
Day of Atonement) to align Islam more closely with Judaism. 
His disappointment, when the Jews of Medina refused to ac- 
cept him as an authentic prophet, was one of the greatest of 
his life. For Jews, the era of prophecy was over, so it was not 
surprising that they could not accept Muhammad, but the 
polemic with the Jews of Medina occupies a significant pro- 
portion of the Quran and shows that it troubled Muhammad. 
Some of the Quranic stories about such prophets as Noah or 
Moses were different from those of the Bible. Many of the 
Jews used to scoff when these were recited in the mosque. 
The three main Jewish tribes also resented Muhammad's as- 
cendancy; they had formed a powerful bloc before his arrival 
in the settlement, and now felt demoted and determined to 
get rid of him. 

But some of the Jews in the smaller clans were friendly and 
enhanced Muhammad's knowledge of Jewish scripture. He 
was especially delighted to hear that in the Book of Genesis 
Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael (who became Ismail 
in Arabic), the child of his concubine Hagar. Abraham had 
been forced to cast Hagar and Ismail out into the wilderness, 
but God had saved them and promised that Ismail too would 
be the father of a great nation, the Arabs. 14Local tradition had 
it that Hagar and Ismail had settled in Mecca, that Abraham 
had visited them there and that together Abraham and Ismail 
had rebuilt the Kabah (which had originally been erected by 
Adam but had fallen into disrepair). 15 This was music to 
Muhammad's ears. It seemed that the Arabs had not been left 
out of the divine plan after all, and that the Kabah had vener- 
able monotheistic credentials. 

By 624 it was clear that most of the Jews of Medina would 
never be reconciled with the Prophet. Muhammad had also 
been shocked to learn that the Jews and Christians (whom he 

18 . Karen Armstrong 

had assumed to belong to a single faith) actually had serious 
theological differences, even though he appears to have 
thought that not all the ahl al-kitab condoned this disgraceful 
sectarianism. In January 624 he made what must have been 
one of his most creative gestures. During the salat prayer, he 
told the congregation to turn around, so that they prayed in 
the direction of Mecca rather than Jerusalem. This change of 
qiblah was a declaration of independence. By turning away 
from Jerusalem towards the Kabah, which had no connection 
with Judaism or Christianity, Muslims tacitly demonstrated 
that they were reverting to the original pure monotheism of 
Abraham, who had lived before the revelation of either the 
Torah or the Gospel and, therefore, before the religion of the 
one God had been split into warring sects. 16Muslims would 
direct themselves to God alone: it was idolatrous to bow be- 
fore a human system or an established religion rather than 
before God himself: 

Verily, as for those who have broken the unity of their faith and 
become sects-thou has nothing to do with them.. . Say: "Be- 
hold, my Sustainer has guided me to a straight way through an 
ever-true faith- in the way of Abraham, who turned away from 
all that is false, and was not of those who ascribe divinity to aught 
beside Him." Say: "Behold, my prayer, and [all] my acts of wor- 
ship, and my living and dying are for God alone."" 

The change of qiblah appealed to all Arab Muslims, especially 
to the emigrants who had made the hijrah from Mecca. Mus- 
lims would no longer tag lamely behind those Jews and Chris- 
tians who ridiculed their aspirations, but would take their 
own direct route to God. 

The second major development occurred shortly after the 
change of the qiblah. Muhammad and the emigrants from 
Mecca had no means of earning a living in Medina; there was 
not enough land for them to farm, and, in any case, they were 

Islam • 19 

merchants and businessmen not agriculturalists. The Medi- 
nese, who were known as the ansar (the helpers), could not af- 
ford to keep them gratis, so the emigrants resorted to the 
ghazu, the "raid," which was a sort of national sport in Arabia, 
as well as being a rough-and-ready means of redistributing 
resources in a land where there was simply not enough to go 
round. Raiding parties would attack a caravan or contingent 
from a rival tribe and carry off booty and livestock, taking 
care to avoid killing people since this would mean a vendetta. 
It was forbidden to conduct a raid against a tribe that had be- 
come an ally or "client" (a weaker tribal group who had 
sought protection from one of the more powerful tribes). The 
emigrants, who had been persecuted by the Quraysh and 
forced to leave their homes, began to conduct ghazu against 
the rich Meccan caravans, which brought them an income, 
but to conduct a ghazu against one's own tribe was a serious 
breach in precedent. The raiding parties enjoyed some initial 
success, but in March 624 Muhammad led a large band of mi- 
grants to the coast to intercept the largest Meccan caravan of 
the year. When they heard of this outrage, the Quraysh dis- 
patched an army to defend the caravan, but, against the odds, 
the Muslims inflicted a stunning defeat on the Meccans at the 
well of Badr. Even though the Meccans were superior in 
terms of numbers, they fought in the old Arab style with care- 
less bravado, each chief leading his own men. Muhammad's 
troops, however, were carefully drilled and fought under his 
unified command. It was a rout that impressed the Bedouin 
tribes, some of whom enjoyed the spectacle of seeing the 
mighty Quraysh brought low. 

There then ensued desperate days for the ummah. Muham- 
mad had to contend with the hostility of some of the pagans 
in Medina, who resented the power of the Muslim newcom- 
ers and were determined to expel them from the settlement. 
He also had to deal with Mecca, where Abu Sufyan now di- 

20 . Karen Armstrong 

rected the campaign against him, and had launched two major 
offensives against the Muslims in Medina. His object was not 
simply to defeat the ummah in battle, but to annihilate all the 
Muslims. The harsh ethic of the desert meant that there were 
no half -measures in warfare: if possible, a victorious chief was 
expected to exterminate the enemy, so the ummah faced the 
threat of total extinction. In 625 Mecca inflicted a severe de- 
feat on the ummah at the Battle of Uhud, but two years later 
the Muslims trounced the Meccans at the Battle of the 
Trench, so called because Muhammad protected the settle- 
ment by digging a ditch around Medina, which threw the 
Quraysh, who still regarded war rather as a chivalric game 
and had never heard of such an unsporting trick, into confu- 
sion, and rendered their cavalry useless. Muhammad's second 
victory over the numerically superior Quraysh (there had 
been ten thousand Meccans to three thousand Muslims) was 
a turning point. It convinced the nomadic tribes that Muham- 
mad was the coming man, and made the Quraysh look decid- 
edly passe' The gods in whose name they fought were clearly 
not working on their behalf. Many of the tribes wanted to be- 
come the allies of the ummah, and Muhammad began to build 
a powerful tribal confederacy, whose members swore not to 
attack one another and to fight each other's enemies. Some of 
the Meccans also began to defect and made the hijrah to Med- 
ina; at last, after five years of deadly peril, Muhammad could 
be confident that the ummah would survive. 

In Medina, the chief casualties of this Muslim success 
were the three Jewish tribes of Qaynuqah, Nadir and 
Qurayzah, who were determined to destroy Muhammad and 
who all independently formed alliances with Mecca. They 
had powerful armies, and obviously posed a threat to the 
Muslims, since their territory was so situated that they could 
easily join a besieging Meccan army or attack the ummah from 
the rear. When the Qaynuqah staged an unsuccessful rebel- 
lion against Muhammad in 625, they were expelled from 

Islam . 21 

Medina, in accordance with Arab custom. Muhammad tried 
to reassure the Nadir, and made a special treaty with them, 
but when he discovered that they had been plotting to assas- 
sinate him they too were sent into exile, where they joined the 
nearby Jewish settlement of Khaybar, and drummed up sup- 
port for Abu Sufyan among the northern Arab tribes. The 
Nadir proved to be even more of a danger outside Medina, so 
when the Jewish tribe of Qurayzah sided with Mecca during 
the Battle of the Trench, when for a time it seemed that the 
Muslims faced certain defeat, Muhammad showed no mercy. 
The seven hundred men of the Qurayzah were killed, and 
their women and children sold as slaves. 

The massacre of the Qurayzah was a horrible incident, but 
it would be a mistake to judge it by the standards of our own 
time. This was a very primitive society: the Muslims them- 
selves had just narrowly escaped extermination, and had 
Muhammad simply exiled the Qurayzah they would have 
swelled the Jewish opposition in Khaybar and brought an- 
other war upon the ummah. In seventh-century Arabia an 
Arab chief was not expected to show mercy to traitors like the 
Qurayzah. The executions sent a grim message to Khaybar 
and helped to quell the pagan opposition in Medina, since the 
pagan leaders had been the allies of the rebellious Jews. This 
was a fight to the death, and everybody had always known that 
the stakes were high. The struggle did not indicate any hostil- 
ity towards Jews in general, but only towards the three rebel 
tribes. The Quran continued to revere Jewish prophets and to 
urge Muslims to respect the People of the Book. SmallerJew-i 
ish groups continued to live in Medina, and later Jews, like 
Christians, enjoyed full religious liberty in the Islamic em- 
pires. Anti-semitism is a Christian vice. Hatred of the Jews 
became marked in the Muslim world only after the creation 
of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent loss of Arab 
Palestine. It is significant that Muslims were compelled to 
import anti-Jewish myths from Europe, and translate into 

22 • Karen Armstrong 

Arabic such virulently anti-semitic texts a s the Protocols oft h e 
Elders ofZion, because they had no such traditions of their 
own. Because of this new hostility towards the Jewish people, 
some Muslims now quote the passages in the Quran that refer 
to Muhammad's struggle with the three rebellious Jewish 
tribes to justify their prejudice. By taking these verses out of 
context, they have distorted both the message of the Quran 
and the attitude of the Prophet, who himself felt no such ha- 
tred of Judaism. 

Muhammad's intransigence towards the Qurayzah had 
been designed to bring hostilities to an end as soon as possi- 
ble. The Quran teaches that war is such a catastrophe that 
Muslims must use every method in their power to restore 
peace and normality in the shortest possible time.18 Arabia 
was a chronically violent society, and the ummah had to fight 
its way to peace. Major social change of the type that 
Muhammad was attempting in the peninsula is rarely 
achieved without bloodshed. But after the Battle of the 
Trench, when Muhammad had humiliated Mecca and 
quashed the opposition in Medina, he felt that it was time to 
abandon the jihad and begin a peace offensive. In March 628 
he set in train a daring and imaginative initiative that brought 
the conflict to a close. He announced that he was going to 
make the hajj to Mecca, and asked for volunteers to accom- 
pany him. Since pilgrims were forbidden to carry arms, the 
Muslims would be walking directly into the lions' den and 
putting themselves at the mercy of the hostile and resentful 
Quraysh. Nevertheless, about a thousand Muslims agreed to 
join the Prophet and set out for Mecca, dressed in the tradi- 
tional white robes of the hajji. If the Quraysh forbade Arabs to 
approach the Kabah or attacked bona fide pilgrims they 
would betray their sacred duty as the guardians of the shrine. 
The Quraysh did, however, dispatch troops to attack the pil- 
grims before they reached the area outside the city where vi- 
olence was forbidden, but the Prophet evaded them and, with 

Islam • 23 

the help of some of his Bedouin allies, managed to reach the 
edge of the sanctuary, camped at Hudaybiyyah and awaited 
developments. Eventually the Quraysh were pressured by 
this peaceful demonstration to sign a treaty with the u m m a h . It 
was an unpopular move on both sides. Many of the Muslims 
were eager for action, and felt that the treaty was shameful, 
but Muhammad was determined to achieve victory by peace- 
ful means. 

Hudaybiyyah was another turning point. It impressed still 
more of the Bedouin, and conversion to Islam became even 
more of an irreversible trend. Eventually in 630, when the 
Quraysh violated the treaty by attacking one of the Prophet's 
tribal allies, Muhammad marched upon Mecca with an army 
of ten thousand men. Faced with this overwhelming force 
and, as pragmatists, realizing what it signified, the Quraysh 
conceded defeat, opened the city gates, and Muhammad took 
Mecca without shedding a drop of blood. He destroyed the 
idols around the Kabah, rededicated it to Allah, the one God, 
and gave the old pagan rites of the hajj'an Islamic significance 
by linking them to the story of Abraham, Hagar and Ismail. 
None of the Quraysh was forced to become Muslim, but 
Muhammad's victory convinced some of his most principled 
opponents, such as Abu Sufyan, that the old religion had 
failed. When Muhammad died in 632, in the arms of his 
beloved wife Aisha, almost all the tribes of Arabia had joined 
the ummah as Confederates or as converted Muslims. Since 
members of the ummah could not, of course, attack one an- 
other, the ghastly cycle of tribal warfare, of vendetta and 
counter-vendetta, had ended. Single-handedly, Muhammad 
had brought peace to war-torn Arabia. 

THE RASHIDUN (632-661) 

The life and achievements of Muhammad would affect the 
spiritual, political and ethical vision of Muslims forever. 

24 . Karen Armstrong 

They expressed the Islamic experience of "salvation," which 
does not consist in the redemption of an "original sin" com- 
mitted by Adam and the admittance to eternal life, but in the 
achievement of a society which puts into practice God's de- 
sires for the human race. This not only redeemed Muslims 
from the sort of political and social hell that existed in pre- 
Islamic Arabia, but also provided them with a context within 
which they could more easily make that wholehearted sur- 
render to God which alone can fulfil them. Muhammad be- 
came the archetypal example of that perfect submission to 
the divine, and Muslims, as we shall see, would attempt to 
conform to this standard in their spiritual and social lives. 
Muhammad was never venerated as a divine figure, but he 
was held to be the Perfect Man. His surrender to God had 
been so complete that he had transformed society and en- 
abled the Arabs to live together in harmony. The word islam is 
etymologically related to salam (peace), and in these early 
years Islam did promote cohesion and concord. 

But Muhammad had achieved this success by being the re- 
cipient of a divine revelation. Throughout his career, God 
had sent down the oracles that formed the Quran. When 
faced with a crisis or dilemma, Muhammad had entered 
deeply into himself and heard a divinely inspired solution. 
His life had thus represented a constant dialogue between 
transcendent reality and the violent, puzzling and disturbing 
happenings of the mundane world. The Quran had, there- 
fore, followed public and current events, bringing divine 
guidance and illumination to politics. Muhammad's succes- 
sors, however, were not prophets, but would have to rely on 
their own human insights. How would they ensure that Mus- 
lims continued to respond creatively and directly to this sa- 
cred imperative? The ummah that they ruled would be much 
larger and increasingly more complex than the little commu- 
nity of Medina, where everybody knew everybody else and 

Islam • 25 

there had been no need for officialdom and a bureaucracy. 
How would the new deputy (khalifah) of Muhammad pre- 
serve the essence of the first u m m a h in very different circum- 

The first four caliphs to succeed Muhammad grappled 
with these difficult questions. They were all men who had 
been among the Prophet's closest companions, and had 
played a leading role in Mecca and Medina. They are known 
as the rashidun, the "rightly guided" caliphs, and their period 
of rule would be just as formative as that of the Prophet him- 
self. Muslims would define themselves and their theology ac- 
cording to the way they assessed the turbulent, glorious and 
tragic events of these years. 

After the Prophet's death, the leading Muslims had to de- 
cide what form the ummah should take. Some may not have 
believed that there ought to be a "state," a polity which had no 
precedent in Arabia. Some seemed to think that each tribal 
group should elect its own imam (leader). But the Prophet's 
companions Abu Bakr and Umar ibn al-Khattab argued that 
the ummah must be a united community, and should have a 
single ruler, as it had under the Prophet. Some believed that 
Muhammad would have wanted to be succeeded by Ali ibn 
Abi Talib, his closest male relative. In Arabia, where the 
blood-tie was sacred, it was thought that a chiefs special 
qualities were passed down the line of his descendants, and 
some Muslims believed that Ali had inherited something of 
Muhammad's special charisma. But although Ali's piety was 
beyond question, he was still young and inexperienced, and 
therefore Abu Bakr was elected the first khalifah of the 
Prophet by a majority of votes. 

Abu Bakr's reign (632-34) was short but crucial. He was 
chiefly preoccupied by the so-called wars of riddah (apostasy) 
when various tribes tried to break away from the ummah and 
reassert their former independence. It would, however, be a 

26 . Karen Armstrong 

mistake to regard this as a widespread religious defection. 
The revolts were entirely political and economic. Most of the 
Bedouin tribes who had entered the Islamic Confederacy had 
little interest in the details of Muhammad's religion. The 
Prophet, a realist, had recognized that many of the alliances 
he had formed were purely political, a matter of one chief 
joining forces with another, as was customary in the Arabian 
steppes. Some chiefs may have believed that their pact had 
been only with Muhammad and not with his successor, and 
that after his death they were free to raid tribes in the ummah, 
thus calling upon themselves a Muslim riposte. 

It was, however, significant that many of the rebels felt im- 
pelled to give their revolts a religious justification; the leaders 
after claimed to be prophets, and produced Quranic-style 
"revelations. " The Arabs had been through a profound experi- 
ence. It was not "religious" in our modern sense of the word, 
since for many it was not a private faith, following an interior 
conversion. The Prophet had broken the old mould, and 
suddenly-if momentarily-the Arabs had found themselves 
for the first time members of a united community, free from 
the burden of constant, debilitating warfare. For the brief 
years of Muhammad's career they had glimpsed the possibil- 
ity of an entirely different way of life, bound up with a reli- 
gious change. What had happened had been so astounding 
that even those who wanted to break away from the ummah 
could only think in prophetic terms. It was probably during 
the riddah wars that Muslims began to assert that Muhammad 
had been the last and greatest of the prophets, a claim that is 
not made explicitly in the Quran, as Muslims countered the 
challenge of these riddah prophets. 

Abu Bakr quelled the uprisings with wisdom and clemency, 
and thus completed the unification of Arabia. He dealt cre- 
atively with the complaints of the rebels, and there were no 
reprisals taken against those who returned to the fold. Some 

Islam • 21 

were enticed back by the prospect of taking part in the lucra- 
tive ghazu raids in the neighbouring lands, which gained dra- 
matic momentum under the rule of the second caliph, Umar 
ibn al-Khattab (634-44). These raids were a response to a 
problem that had arisen from the new Islamic peace in the 
peninsula. For centuries, the Arabs had eked out their inade- 
quate resources by means of the ghazu, but Islam had put a 
stop to this because the tribes of the u m m a h were not permit- 
ted to attack one another. What would replace the ghazu, 
which had enabled Muslims to scratch out a meagre liveli- 
hood? Umar realized that the u m m a h needed order. Lawless el- 
ements had to be brought under control, and energies which 
had previously been expended in raiding and feuding now had 
to be channelled into a common activity. The obvious answer 
was a series of ghazu raids against the non-Muslim communi- 
ties in the neighbouring countries. The unity of the u m m a h 
would be preserved by an outwardly directed offensive. This 
would also enhance the caliph's authority. The Arabs tradi- 
tionally disliked kingship and would be leery of any ruler who 
assumed the style of a monarch. But they would accept the 
authority of a chief during a military campaign or while they 
were journeying to new pastures. Umar therefore called him- 
self amir al-muminim (the commander of the faithful), and 
Muslims accepted his rulings in matters that concerned the 
ummahasa whole, but not on matters that individuals could 
decide for themselves. 

Under Umar's leadership, therefore, the Arabs burst into 
Iraq, Syria and Egypt, achieving a series of astonishing victo- 
ries. They overcame the Persian army at the Battle of Qa- 
disiyyah (637), which led to the fall of the capital of the 
Persian Sassanids at Ctesiphon. As soon as they had the man- 
power, Muslims would thus be able to occupy the whole of 
the Persian Empire. They encountered stiffer resistance in 
the Byzantine Empire, and conquered no territory in the 

Islam • 29 

Byzantine heartlands in Anatolia. Nevertheless, the Muslims 
were victorious at the Battle of Yarmuk (636) in northern 
Palestine, conquered Jerusalem in 638, and controlled the 
whole of Syria, Palestine and Egypt by 641. The Muslim 
armies went on to seize the North African coast as far as 
Cyrenaica. Just twenty years after the Battle of Badr, the 
Arabs found themselves in possession of a sizeable empire. 
This expansion continued. A century after the Prophet's 
death, the Islamic Empire extended from the Pyrenees to the 
Himalayas. It seemed yet another miracle and sign of God's 
favour. Before the coming of Islam, the Arabs had been a de- 
spised outgroup; but in a remarkably short space of time they 
had inflicted major defeats upon two world empires. The ex- 
perience of conquest enhanced their sense that something 
tremendous had happened to them. Membership of the 
ummah was thus a transcendent experience, because it went 
beyond anything they had known or could have imagined in 
the old tribal days. Their success also endorsed the message 
of the Quran, which had asserted that a correctly guided so- 
ciety must prosper because it was in tune with God's laws. 
Look what had happened once they had surrendered to God's 
will! Where Christians discerned God's hand in apparent fail- 
ure and defeat, when Jesus died on the cross, Muslims experi- 
enced political success as sacramental and as a revelation of 
the divine presence in their lives. 

It is important, however, to be clear that when the Arabs 
burst out of Arabia they were not impelled by the ferocious 
power of "Islam. " Western people often assume that Islam is a 
violent, militaristic faith which imposed itself on its subject 
peoples at sword-point. This is an inaccurate interpretation of 
the Muslim wars of expansion. There was nothing religious 
about these campaigns, and Umar did not believe that he had 
a divine mandate to conquer the world. The objective of 
Umar and his warriors was entirely pragmatic: they wanted 

30 . Karen Armstrong 

plunder and a common activity that would preserve the unity 
of the ummah For centuries the Arabs had tried to raid the 
richer settled lands beyond the peninsula; the difference was 
that this time they had encountered a power vacuum. Persia 
and Byzantium had both been engaged for decades in a long 
and debilitating series of wars with one another. Both were 
exhausted. In Persia, there was factional strife, and flooding 
had destroyed the country's agriculture. Most of the Sassa- 
nian troops were of Arab origin and went over to the in- 
vaders during the campaign. In the Syrian and North African 
provinces of Byzantium, the local population had been alien- 
ated by the religious intolerance of the Greek Orthodox es- 
tablishment, and were not disposed to come to their aid when 
the Arabs attacked, though Muslims could make no headway 
in the Byzantine heartlands of Anatolia. 

Later, when the Muslims had established their great em- 
pire, Islamic law would give a religious interpretation of this 
conquest, dividing the world into the Dar al-Islam (the House 
of Islam), which was in perpetual conflict with the Dar al- 
Harb (the House of War). But in practice the Muslims ac- 
cepted that they had reached the limits of their expansion by 
this date, and coexisted amicably with the non-Muslim world. 
The Quran does not sanctify warfare. It develops the notion 
of a just war of self-defence to protect decent values, but con- 
demns killing and aggression. 19 Furthermore, once the Arabs 
had left the peninsula, they found that nearly everybody be- 
longed to the ahl al-kitab, the People of the Book, who had 
received authentic scriptures from God. They were not, 
therefore, forced to convert to Islam; indeed, until the middle 
of the eighth century, conversion was not encouraged. The 
Muslims assumed that Islam was a religion for the descen- 
dants of Ismail, as Judaism was the faith of the sons of Isaac. 
Arab tribesmen had always extended protection to weaker 
clients (mawali). Once the Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians 

Islam • 31 

in their new empire had become dhimmis (protected subjects), 
they could not be raided or attacked in any way. It had always 
been a point of honour among Arabs to treat their clients 
well, to come to their aid, or to avenge an injury done to them. 
Dhimmis paid a poll tax in return for military protection, and 
were permitted to practise their own faith, as the Quran en- 
joined. Indeed some of the Roman Christians, who had been 
persecuted by the Greek Orthodox for their heretical opin- 
ions, greatly preferred Muslim to Byzantine rule. 

Umar was determined to maintain good discipline. The 
Arab soldiers were not to enjoy the fruits of victory; the con- 
quered lands were not to be divided among the generals, but 
left to the existing cultivators, who paid rent to the Muslim 
state. Muslims were not allowed to settle in the cities. Instead, 
new "garrison towns" (amsar) were built for them at strategic 
locations: Kufah in Iraq, Basrah in Iraq, Qum in Iran, and 
Fustat at the head of the Nile. Damascus was the only old city 
to become a Muslim centre. A mosque was built in each of the 
amsar where the Muslim troops attended Friday prayers. In 
these garrison towns, the soldiers were taught to live an Is- 
lamic life. Umar stressed the importance of family values, was 
hard on drunkenness, and promoted the ascetic virtues of the 
Prophet, who, like the caliph himself, had always lived frugally. 
But the garrison towns were also Arab enclaves, where those 
traditions that could be accommodated with the Quranic 
world-view were continued on foreign soil. At this point, 
Islam was an essentially Arab religion. Any dhimmi who did 
convert had to become a "client" of one of the tribes and be 
absorbed into the Arab system. 

But this period of triumph came to an abrupt end in 
November 644, when Umar was stabbed in the mosque of 
Medina by a Persian prisoner-of-war who had a personal 
grievance against him. The last years of the rashidun were 
characterized by violence. Uthman ibn Affan was elected as 

32 . Karen Armstrong 

the third caliph by six of the Prophet's companions. He was a 
weaker character than his predecessors, but for the first six 
years of his reign the umma h continued to prosper. Uthman 
governed well and the Muslims conquered new territory. 
They seized Cyprus from the Byzantines, thus finally ejecting 
them from the eastern Mediterranean, and in North Africa 
the armies reached Tripoli in what is now Libya. In the East, 
the Muslim troops took much of Armenia, penetrated the 
Caucasus and established Muslim rule as far as the River 
Oxus in Iran, Herat in Afghanistan, and Sind in the Indian 

But, despite these victories, the soldiers were becoming dis- 
contented. They had undergone a massive change. In just over 
a decade they had exchanged a harsh nomadic existence for the 
very different lifestyle of the professional army. They spent the 
summer fighting and winter far from home in the garrison 
towns. The distances were now so vast that the campaigns were 
more exhausting, and they were taking less plunder than be- 
fore. Uthman still refused to allow the commanders and the 
richest Meccan families to establish private estates in such 
countries as what is now Iraq, and this made him unpopular, es- 
pecially in Kufah and Fustat. Uthman also alienated the Mus- 
lims of Medina by giving the most prestigious posts to 
members of his own Umayyad family. They accused him of 
nepotism, even though many of the Umayyad officials were 
men of great ability. Uthman had, for example, appointed 
Muawiyyah, the son of Muhammad's old enemy Abu Sufyan, 
governor of Syria. He was a good Muslim, and a skilled admin- 
istrator, known for his steadiness of character and his measured 
assessment of circumstances. But it seemed wrong to the Mus- 
lims of Medina, who still boasted of being the ansar(helpers) of 
the Prophet, that they should be passed over in favour of Abu 
Sufyan's offspring. The Quran-reciters, who knew the scripture 
by heart and had become the chief religious authorities, were 

Islam . 33 

also incensed when Uthman insisted that only one version of 
the sacred text be used in the garrison towns, and suppressed 
variants, which many of them preferred, but which differed in 
minor details. Increasingly, the malcontents looked to Ali ibn 
Abi Talib, the Prophet's cousin, who, it seems, had opposed the 
policies of both Umar and Uthman, standing for "soldiers' 
rights" against the power of the central authority. 

In 656 the discontent culminated in outright mutiny. A 
group of Arab soldiers from Fustat returned to Medina to 
claim their due, and when fobbed off they besieged Uthman's 
simple house, broke in, and assassinated him. The mutineers 
acclaimed Ali as the new caliph. 


Ali seemed an obvious choice. He had grown up in the 
Prophet's household and was imbued with the ideals pro- 
moted by Muhammad. He was a good soldier and wrote in- 
spiring letters to his officers, which are still classic Muslim 
texts, preaching the necessity of justice and the importance of 
dealing compassionately with the subject peoples. But despite 
his intimacy with the Prophet, his rule was not universally ac- 
cepted. Ali was supported by the ansar of Medina and those 
Meccans who resented the rise of the Umayyads. He also en- 
joyed the support of Muslims who still lived the traditional 
nomadic life, especially in Iraq, whose garrison town Kufah 
was an Alid stronghold. But the assassination of Uthman, 
who, like Ali himself, had been Muhammad's son-in-law, and 
had been one of the earliest converts to Islam, was a shocking 
event which inspired a five-year civil war within the ummah, 
which is known as the fitnah, the time of temptation. 

After a brief delay, Muhammad's favourite wife Aisha, to- 
gether with her kinsman Talhah and Zubayr, one of the 
Prophet's Meccan companions, attacked Ali for not punishing 

34 . Karen Armstrong 

Uthman's murderers. Since the army was in the provinces, the 
rebels marched from Medina to Basrah. Ali was in a difficult 
position. He must himself have been shocked by Uthman's 
murder, which, as a devout man, he could not condone. But 
his supporters insisted that Uthman deserved death, since he 
had not ruled justly, according to the Quranic ideal. Ali could 
not disown his partisans, and took refuge in Kufah, which he 
made his capital. He then advanced on Basrah with his army, 
which easily defeated the rebels there in the Battle of the 
Camel, so called because Aisha, who rode with the troops, 
had watched the fighting from the back of her camel. After his 
victory, Ali gave his supporters the top jobs, divided his trea- 
sury among them, but he still did not accord them full "sol- 
diers' rights" by allowing them to annex the Sawad, the rich 
agricultural land around Kufah, which had provided the old 
Persian Empire with most of its revenue. He was failing to 
satisfy his own party but also, in not condemning Uthman's 
murder, casting himself in a highly dubious light. 

Ali's rule had not been accepted in Syria, where the oppo- 
sition was led by Muawiyyah from his capital in Damascus. 
Uthman had been his kinsman, and, as the new head of the 
Umayyad family, it was his duty as an Arab chieftain to 
avenge Uthman's death. He was supported by the wealthy 
Meccan clans and the Arabs of Syria, who had appreciated his 
strong and wise government. Ali probably felt some sympathy 
for Muawiyyah's position, and initially took no steps against 
him. But the spectacle of the Prophet's relatives and compan- 
ions poised to attack one another was profoundly disturbing. 
Muhammad's mission had been to promote unity among 
Muslims and to integrate the ummah so that it reflected the 
unity of God. To prevent the appalling possibility of further 
conflict, the two sides tried to negotiate a settlement at Siffin 
on the upper Euphrates in 657, but the discussions were in- 
conclusive. Muawiyyah's supporters put copies of the Quran 

Islam . 35 

on the tips of their lances and called for neutral Muslims to 
arbitrate between the contestants in accordance with God's 
word. It appeared that the arbitration went against Ali, and 
many of his followers tried to persuade him to accept it. Feel- 
ing thus empowered, Muawiyyah deposed Ali, sent troops 
into Iraq and had himself proclaimed caliph in Jerusalem. 

But some of Ali's more radical supporters refused to accept 
the arbitration and were shocked by Ali's submission. In their 
view, Uthman had failed to live up to the standard of the 
Quran. Ali had compromised with the supporters of injustice 
by failing to right the wrongs committed by Uthman and was, 
therefore, no true Muslim. They withdrew from the ummah, 
which they claimed had betrayed the spirit of the Quran, and 
set up their own camp with an independent commander. Ali 
suppressed these extremists, who became known as the kharajis 
(seceders), wiping out the original rebels, but the movement 
gained adherents throughout the empire. Many had been per- 
turbed by the nepotism of Uthman's reign, and wanted to im- 
plement the egalitarian spirit of the Quran. The Kharajites 
were always a minority group, but their position was important, 
since it was the first instance of an important Muslim trend, 
whereby the politics that affected the morality of the ummah 
led to a new theological development. The Kharajites insisted 
that the ruler of the Islamic community should not be the most 
powerful but the most committed Muslim; caliphs should not 
be power-seekers like Muawiyyah. God had given human be- 
ings free will and, since he was just, he would punish such evil- 
doers as Muawiyyah, Uthman and Ali, who by betraying Islam 
had become apostates. The Kharajites were extremists but they 
forced Muslims to consider the question of who was and who 
was not a Muslim. So important was the political leadership as 
a religious idea that it led to discussions about the nature of 
God, predestination and human freedom. 

Ali's harsh treatment of the Kharajites cost him much sup- 

36 . Karen Armstrong 

port, even in Kufah. Muawiyyah made steady gains and many 
of the Arabs remained neutral. A second attempt at arbitra- 
tion, which tried to find another candidate for the caliphate, 
failed; Muawiyyah's army defeated the resistance to his rule 
in Arabia, and in 661 Ali was murdered by a Kharajite. Those 
who remained loyal to Ali's cause in Kufah acclaimed his son 
Hasan, but Hasan came to an agreement with Muawiyyah, 
and, for a financial consideration, retired to Medina, where he 
lived without further political involvement until his death 
in 669. 

The ummah had thus entered a new phase. Muawiyyah 
made Damascus his capital and set about restoring the unity 
of the Muslim community. But a pattern had been set. The 
Muslims of Iraq and Syria now felt antagonistic towards one 
another. With hindsight, Ali was regarded as a decent, pious 
man who had been defeated by the logic of practical politics. 
The murder of the man who had been the first male convert 
to Islam and was the Prophet's closest male relative was 
rightly seen as a disgraceful event, which posed grave ques- 
tions about the moral integrity of the ummah. According to 
common Arab belief, Ali was thought to have inherited some 
of the Prophet's exceptional qualities, and his male descen- 
dants were revered as leading religious authorities. The fate 
of Ali, a man betrayed by his friends as well as his enemies, 
became a symbol of the inherent injustice of life. From time 
to time, Muslims who protested against the behaviour of the 
reigning caliph would retreat from the ummah, like the Khara- 
jites, and summon all true Muslims to join them in a struggle 
(jihad) for higher Islamic standards. Often they would claim 
that they belonged to the Shiah i-Ali, the Partisans of Ali. 

Others, however, took a more neutral stance. They had 
been appalled by the murderous divisions that had torn the 
ummah apart, and henceforth unity became a more crucial 
value in Islam than ever. Many had been dissatisfied with Ali, 

Islam . 37 

but could see that Muawiyyah was far from ideal. They began 
to look back on the period of the four rashidun as a time when 
Muslims had been ruled by devout men, who had been close 
to the Prophet but had been brought low by evil-doers. The 
events of the first fitnah had become symbolic, and rival par- 
ties now drew upon these tragic incidents as they struggled to 
make sense of their Islamic vocation. All agreed, however, 
that the shift from Medina, the capital of the Prophet and the 
rashidun, to Umayyad Damascus was more than a political ex- 
pedient. The ummah seemed to be moving away from the 
world of the Prophet, and was in danger of losing its raison 
d'etre. The more pious and concerned Muslims were re- 
solved to find new ways of putting it back on track. 



Caliph Muawiyyah (661-80) managed to restore the unity of 
the empire. Muslims had been horrified by the fitnah, and had 
realized how vulnerable they were in their garrison towns, 
isolated from their fellow Arabs and surrounded by poten- 
tially hostile subjects. They simply could not afford such 
lethal civil war. They wanted strong government, and 
Muawiyyah, an able ruler, was able to give it to them. He re- 
vived Umar's system of segregating the Arab Muslims from 
the population, and even though some Muslims in Arabia 
were still agitating for the right to build estates in the occu- 
pied territories, Muawiyyah continued to forbid this. He also 
discouraged conversion, and built an efficient administration. 
Islam thus remained the religion of the conquering Arab 
elite. At first the Arabs, who had no experience of imperial 
government, relied on the expertise of non-Muslims, who 
had served the previous Byzantine and Persian regimes, but 
gradually the Arabs began to oust the dhimmis from the top 
posts. In the course of the next century, the Umayyad caliphs 
would gradually transform the disparate regions conquered 
by the Muslim armies into a unified empire, with a common 
ideology. This was a great achievement; but the court natu- 
rally began to develop a rich culture and luxurious lifestyle, 
and became indistinguishable in many respects from any 
other ruling class. 

Therein lay a dilemma. It had been found, after centuries 
of experience, that an absolute monarchy was the only effec- 
tive way of governing a pre-modern empire with an agrarian- 
based economy, and that it was far more satisfactory than a 

42 . Karen Armstrong 

military oligarchy, where commanders usually competed 
with one another for power. The idea of making one man so 
privileged that rich and poor alike are vulnerable before him 
is abhorrent to us in our democratic era, but we must realize 
that democracy is made possible by an industrialized society 
which has the technology to replicate its resources indefi- 
nitely: this was not an option before the advent of Western 
modernity. In the pre-modern world, a monarch who was so 
powerful that he had no rivals did not need to fight his own 
battles, could settle the quarrels of the great and had no rea- 
son to ignore the entreaties of those who pleaded for the poor. 
So strong was this preference for monarchy that, as we shall 
see, even when real power was wielded by local rulers in a 
large empire, they still paid lip service to the king and 
claimed to be acting as his vassals. The Umayyad caliphs gov- 
erned a vast empire, which continued to expand under their 
rule. They would find that in order to preserve the peace they 
would have to become absolute monarchs too, but how would 
this cohere with Arab traditions, on the one hand, and with 
the radical egalitarianism of the Quran on the other? 

The first Umayyad caliphs were not absolute monarchs. 
Muawiyyah still ruled like an Arab chief, as primus inter pares. 
The Arabs had always distrusted kingship, which was not fea- 
sible in a region where numerous small groups had to com- 
pete for the same inadequate resources. They had no system 
of dynastic rule, since they always needed the best man avail- 
able as their chief. But the fitnah had shown the dangers of a 
disputed succession. It would be wrong to think of the 
Umayyads as "secular" rulers. Muawiyyah was a religious 
man and a devout Muslim, according to the prevailing notion 
of Islam. He was devoted to the sanctity of Jerusalem, the first 
Muslim qiblah and the home of so many of the great prophets 
of the past. He worked hard to maintain the unity of the 
ummah. His rule was based on the Quranic insistence that all 

Islam . 43 

Muslims were brothers and must not fight one another. He 
accorded the dhimmis religious freedom and personal rights 
on the basis of Quranic teaching. But the experience of the 
fitnah had convinced some Muslims, such as the Kharajites, 
that Islam should mean more than this, in both the public and 
the private domain. 

There was, therefore, a potential conflict between the 
needs of the agrarian state and Islam, and this became tragi- 
cally clear after Muawiyyah's death. He had already realized 
that he must depart from Arab traditions in order to secure 
the succession, and before he died he arranged the accession 
of his son, Yazid 1(680-83). But there was an immediate out- 
cry. In Kufah, loyal Alids called for the rule of Ali's second 
son, Husain, who set out from Medina to Iraq with a small 
band of followers, together with their wives and children. In 
the meantime, the Kufans had been intimidated by the local 
Umayyad governor and withdrew their support. Husain re- 
fused to surrender, however, convinced that the sight of the 
Prophet's family on the march in quest for true Islamic val- 
ues would remind the ummah of its prime duty. On the plain 
of Kerbala, just outside Kufah, he and his followers were sur- 
rounded by the Umayyad troops and massacred. Husain was 
the last to die, holding his infant son in his arms. All Muslims 
lament this tragic death of the Prophet's grandson, but Hu- 
sain's fate focused the attention of those who regarded them- 
selves as the Shiah i-Ali even more intensely on the 
Prophet's descendants. Like the murder of Ali, the Kerbala 
tragedy became a symbol for Shii Muslims of the chronic in- 
justice that seems to pervade human life; it also seemed to 
show the impossibility of integrating the religious impera- 
tive in the harsh world of politics, which seemed murder- 
ously antagonistic to it. 

Even more serious was the revolt in the Hijaz led by Ab- 
dallah ibn al-Zubayr, the son of one of the rebels against Ali 

44 . Karen Armstrong 

at the Battle of the Camel; this was also an attempt to return 
to the pristine values of the first ummah , by wresting power 
away from the Umayyads and restoring it to Mecca and Med- 
ina. In 683 Umayyad troops took Medina, but lifted their 
siege of Mecca in the confusion that followed the premature 
death of Yazid I and his infant son Muawiyyah II that year. Yet 
again the ummah was ripped apart by civil war. Ibn al-Zubayr 
achieved widespread recognition as caliph, but he was iso- 
lated in the Hijaz when Kharajite rebels established an inde- 
pendent state in central Arabia in 684; there were other 
Kharajite uprisings in Iraq and Iran; Shiis rose up in Kufah to 
avenge the death of Husain, and to promote the candidature 
of another of Ali's sons. The rebels all asserted the egalitarian 
ideals of the Quran, but it was the Syrian forces who carried 
the day in the name of Manvan, an Umayyad cousin of 
Muawiyyah I, and his son Abd al-Malik. By 691 they had dis- 
posed of all their rivals, and the following year had defeated 
and killed Ibn al-Zubayr himself. 

Abd al-Malik (685-705) was able to reassert Umayyad 
rule, and the last twelve years of his reign were peaceful and 
prosperous. He was not yet an absolute monarch, but after the 
second fitnah he was clearly tending that way. He upheld the 
solidarity of the umrrdi against the local Arab chiefiains, 
brought rebels to heel and pursued a determined policy of 
centralization. Arabic replaced Persian as the official lan- 
guage of the empire; for the first time there was an Islamic 
coinage, decorated with Quranic phrases. In Jerusalem, the 
Dome of the Rock was completed in 691, the first major Is- 
lamic monument, which proudly asserted the supremacy of 
Islam in this holy city which had a large Christian majority. It 
announced that Islam had come to stay. The Dome also laid 
the foundations of the unique architectural and artistic style 
of Islam. There was to be no figurative art, which might dis- 
tract worshippers from the transcendence that cannot ade- 

Islam . 45 

quately be expressed in human imagery. Instead, the inside of 
the dome was decorated with Quranic verses, the Word of 
God. The dome itself, which would become so characteristic 
of Muslim architecture, is a towering symbol of the spiritual 
ascent to heaven to which all believers aspire, but it also re- 
flects the perfect balance of tawhid. Its exterior, which reaches 
towards the infinity of the sky, is a perfect replica of its inter- 
nal dimension. It illustrates the way in which the human and 
the divine, the inner and the outer worlds complement one 
another as two halves of a single whole. Muslims were be- 
coming more confident, and were beginning to express their 
own unique spiritual vision. 

In this changed climate, the strict rules that had isolated 
Muslims from the subject peoples slowly relaxed. Non- 
Muslims began to settle in the garrison towns; peasants got 
work in Muslim areas and learned to speak Arabic. Mer- 
chants began to trade with the Muslims and, even though 
conversion was still not encouraged, some imperial officials 
did embrace Islam. But as the old segregation broke down, the 
population began to resent the privileges of the Arab Mus- 
lims. The suppression of the Kharajites and Shiis had left a 
bad taste, and Abd al-Malik was aware of a new Islamic move- 
ment in Arabia and the garrison towns which pressed for a 
more stringent application of Islamic ideals. Abd al-Malik 
was interested in these new ideas, but claimed that the Quran 
supported his policies. Some of these new pietists, however, 
wanted the Quran to take a more active role, and to lead the 
way instead of being used as a mere support or prop. 


The civil wars raised many crucial questions. How could a so- 
ciety that killed its devout leaders (imams) claim to be guided 
by God? What kind of man should lead the ummah? Should 

46 . Karen Armstrong 

the caliph be the most pious Muslim (as the Kharajites be- 
lieved), a direct descendant of the Prophet (as the Shiis con- 
tended), or should the faithful accept the Umayyads, with all 
their failings, in the interests of peace and unity? Had Ali or 
Muawiyyah been right during the first jitnah? And how Is- 
lamic was the Umayyad state? Could rulers who lived in such 
luxury and condoned the poverty of the vast majority of the 
people be true Muslims? And what about the position of non- 
Arab converts to Islam, who had to become "clients" (mawali) 
of one of the Arab tribes? Did this not suggest a chauvinism 
and inequity that was quite incompatible with the Quran? 

It was from these political discussions that the religion and 
piety of Islam, as we know it, began to emerge. Quran reciters 
and other concerned people asked what it really meant to be a 
Muslim. They wanted their society to be Islamic first and Arab 
second. The Quran spoke of the unification (tawhid) of the 
whole of human life, which meant that all the actions of the 
individual and all the institutions of the state should express a 
fundamental submission to God's will. At an equally formative 
stage of their history, Christians had held frequently vitupera- 
tive discussions about the nature and person of Jesus, which 
helped them to evolve their distinctive view of God, salvation 
and the human condition. These intense Muslim debates 
about the political leadership of the u m m a h after the civil wars 
played a role in Islam that was similar to the great Christolog- 
ical debates of the fourth and fifth centuries in Christianity. 

The prototype and supreme exemplar of this new Muslim 
piety was Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), who had been brought up in 
Medina in circles close to the Prophet's family, and lived 
through the death of Uthman. Later he moved to Basrah, 
where he developed a spirituality based on contempt for 
worldly goods, which harked back to the Prophet's ascetic 
lifestyle. But Hasan became the most famous preacher in Bas- 
rah, and his frugal way of life became an eloquent and poten- 

Islam . 47 

tially subversive criticism of the luxury of the court. Hasan 
initiated a religious reform in Basrah, teaching his followers 
to meditate deeply on the Quran, and that reflection, self- 
examination and a total surrender to God's will were the 
source of true happiness, since they resolved the tensions be- 
tween human desires and what God desired for men and 
women. Hasan supported the Umayyads, but made it clear 
that he reserved the right to criticize them if they deserved it. 
He had opted for a theology known as the Qadariyyah, be- 
cause it studied the decrees (qadar) of God. Human beings 
had free will and were responsible for their actions; they were 
not predestined to act in a certain way, since God was just and 
would not command them to live virtuously if it was not in 
their power. Therefore, the caliphs must be accountable for 
their deeds, and must be taken to task if they disobeyed God's 
clear teaching. When Caliph Abd al-Malik heard that Hasan 
had been spreading this potentially rebellious doctrine, he 
summoned him to court, but Hasan was so popular that the 
caliph dared not punish him. Hasan had begun the strong 
Muslim tradition of combining a disciplined interior life with 
political opposition to the government. 

Qadarites accepted Umayyadrule, because it alone seemed 
able to preserve the unity of the ummah; they therefore op- 
posed the Kharajites, who held that the Umayyads were apos- 
tates and deserving of death. Hasan's pupil Wasan ibn Ata (d. 
748) founded a moderate school which "withdrew" (itazahu) 
from these two extreme positions. The Mutazilites agreed with 
the Qadarites in stressing the freedom of the human will, in 
condemning the luxurious lifestyle of the court and in their 
insistence on the equality of all Muslims. But the Mutazilites' 
emphasis on the justice of God made them highly critical of 
Muslims who behaved exploitatively towards others. On the 
political question, they "withdrew" from making a judgement 
between Ali and Muawiyyah, since they claimed that only 

48 . Karen Armstrong 

God could know what was in men's hearts. This obviously 
countered the extremism of the Kharajites, but the Mutazilites 
were often political activists, nevertheless. The Quran exhorts 
Muslims to "command what is good and forbid what is evil,'" 
and, like the Kharajites, some of the Mutazilites took this very 
seriously. Some supported Shii rebellions; others, such as Hasan 
al-Basri, castigated the rulers who did not live up to the 
Quranic ideal. The Mutazilites would dominate the intellec- 
tual scene in Iraq for over a century. Mutazilites developed a 
rationalistic theology (kalam) which emphasized the strict 
unity and simplicity of God, which the integrity of the u m m a h 
was supposed to reflect. 

The Murjites, another school, also refused to judge be- 
tween Ali and Muawiyyah, since it was a man's interior 
disposition that counted. Muslims must "postpone" (arja) 
judgement, in accordance with the Quran.2 The Umayyads 
should not be prejudged or dismissed as illegitimate rulers 
before they had done anything to deserve it, therefore, but 
should be severely rebuked if they contravened the standards 
of scripture. The most famous adherent of this school was 
Abu Hanifah (699-767), a merchant from Kufah. He had con- 
verted to Islam and pioneered the new discipline of jurispru- 
dence (fiqh), which would have an immense impact on Islamic 
piety and become the main discipline of higher education in 
the Muslim world. Fiqh also had its origins in the widespread 
discontent after the civil wars. Men would gather in each 
other's houses or in the mosques to discuss the inadequacies 
of Umayyad government. How could society be run accord- 
ing to Islamic principles? The jurists wanted to establish pre- 
cise legal norms that would make the Quranic command to 
build a just society that surrendered wholly and in every de- 
tail to God's will a real possibility rather than a pious dream. 
In Basrah, Kufah, Medina and Damascus these early jurists 
(faqihs) worked out a legal system for their particular locality. 

Islam . 49 

Their problem was that the Quran contains very little legisla- 
tion, and what laws there were had been designed for a much 
simpler society. So some of the jurists began to collect "news" 
or "reports" (ahadith; singular: hadith) about the Prophet and 
his companions to find out how they had behaved in a given 
situation. Others took the customary practice (sunnah) of 
Muslims in their city as a starting point, and tried to trace it 
back to one of the companions who had settled there in the 
early days. Thus, they believed, they would gain true Urn, a 
knowledge of what was right and how to behave. Abu Hanifah 
became the greatest legal expert of the Umayyad period, and 
founded a school (madhhab) of jurisprudence which Muslims 
still follow today. He wrote little himself, but his disciples 
preserved his teachings for posterity, while later jurists, who 
developed slightly different theories, founded new madhhabs. 
Islamic historiography emerged from the same kind of dis- 
cussion circles. In order to evolve a solution to their current 
difficulties, Muslims were finding that they had to look back to 
the period of the Prophet and the rashidun. Should the caliph 
be a member of the tribe of Quraysh, or was a descendant of 
one of the ansar acceptable? Had Muhammad expressed any 
view about this? What arrangements had Muhammad made 
about the succession? What had actually happened after the 
murder of Uthman? Historians such as Muhammad ibn Ishaq 
(d. 767) started to collect ahadith which explained some of the 
passages of the Quran by relating them to the historical cir- 
cumstances in which the Prophet had received a particular rev- 
elation. Ibn Ishaq wrote a detailed biography (sirah) of the 
Prophet Muhammad, which stressed the virtue of the ansar 
and the iniquity of the Meccans who had opposed Muham- 
mad. He clearly inclined to the Shii position that it was not fit- 
ting that Muslims should be ruled by the descendants of Abu 
Sufyan. History had thus become a religious activity that justi- 
fied a principled opposition to the regime. 

50 . Karen Armstrong 

The political health of the ummah was, therefore, central to 
the emerging piety of Islam. While the caliph and his admin- 
istration struggled with the problems that beset any agrarian 
empire, and tried to develop a powerful monarchy, the devout 
were utterly opposed to any such solution. From a very early 
stage, therefore, the behaviour and policies of a ruler had ac- 
quired a religious significance that had profound reverbera- 
tions with the asceticism, mysticism, sacred jurisprudence 
and early theological speculation of the Muslim world. 

UMAYYADS (7 05-7 50) 

Despite the disapproval of the more devout, Abd al-Malik 
was able to ensure that his son al-Walid I succeeded him: for 
the first time, the dynastic principle was accepted in the 
Islamic world without demur. The Umayyad dynasty had 
reached its zenith. Under al-Walid, the Muslim armies con- 
tinued the conquest of North Africa, and established a king- 
dom in Spain. This marked the limit of the western expansion 
of Islam. When Charles Martel defeated the Muslim troops 
at Poitiers in 732, this was not regarded by Muslims as a great 
disaster. Western people have often exaggerated the impor- 
tance of Poitiers, which was no Waterloo. The Arabs felt no 
compulsion-religious or otherwise to conquer western 
Christendom in the name of Islam. Indeed, Europe seemed 
remarkably unattractive to them: there were few opportuni- 
ties for trade in that primitive backwater, little booty to be 
had, and the climate was terrible. 

By the end of the reign of Umar II (717-20), the empire 
was in trouble. Any pre-modern empire had a limited life- 
span; based as it was on an agrarian surplus, there would in- 
evitably come a time when a large, expanding state would 
outrun its resources. Umar had to pay for a disastrous attempt 

52 . Karen Armstrong 

to conquer Constantinople, which had not only failed but led 
to heavy loss of manpower and equipment. Umar was the first 
caliph to encourage the dhimmis to convert to Islam, and they 
were eager to join this dynamic new faith, but since they no 
longer had to pay the poll tax (jizyah), the new policy resulted 
in a drastic loss of revenue. Umar was a devout man, who had 
been brought up in Medina and had been influenced by the 
religious movement there. He tried to model his behaviour 
on that of the rashidun, stressed the ideal of Islamic unity, 
treated all the provinces on an equal basis (instead of favour- 
ing Syria) and was humane towards the dhimmis. He was very 
popular, but his Islamic policies, which endeared him to the 
pious, were not good for the economy of the ailing empire. 
The reigns of his successors were punctuated with revolts 
and rumbling discontent. It made little difference whether 
the caliphs were dissolute, like Yazid II (720-24), or devout, 
like Hisham I (724-43). Hisham was a strong and effective 
caliph, who was able to put the empire back on a more sound 
economic basis, but he achieved this by making the state more 
rigidly centralized and his own rule more autocratic. He was 
becoming more like a conventional absolute monarch, and 
the empire benefited from this politically. The problem was 
that this type of autocracy was abhorrent to the devout, and 
fundamentally un-Islamic. Was it not possible to run a state 
on principles after all? Shiis became increasingly active. Their 
leaders claimed descent from Ali, believing that the i 1 m that 
would enable Muslims to inaugurate a just society had been 
preserved most fully in Muhammad's family and that they 
alone should rule. The more radical Shiis blamed all the pre- 
sent problems of the u m m a h on the first three rashidun (Abu 
Bakr, Umar and Uthman), who should have allowed Ali to 
take the leadership in the first place. Many of the more ex- 
treme Shiis (known as the ghulat. exaggerators) were converts 
and brought some of their old beliefs into Islam with them. 

Islam . 53 

They saw Ali as an incarnation of the divine (like Jesus), be- 
lieved that Shii leaders who had been killed in an insurrection 
were in temporary "occultation" and would return to inaugu- 
rate a Utopian realm of justice and peace in the Last Days. 

But the religious were not the only people who felt alien- 
ated from Umayyad rule. The converts to Islam (mawalis: 
clients) objected to their second-class status. There were 
tribal divisions among the Arab Muslims, some of whom 
wanted to settle down and integrate with the subject peoples 
and others who wanted to continue the old expansionist wars. 
But the Islamic sentiment had become so widespread that the 
various revolts and uprisings nearly all adopted a religious 
ideology. This was certainly true of the revolt that finally top- 
pled the Umayyad dynasty. The Abbasid faction capitalized 
on the widespread desire to see a member of Muhammad's 
family on the throne, and emphasized the descent of their 
leader from the Prophet's uncle Abbas and his son Abdallah, 
one of the most eminent of the early Quran reciters. They 
began to muster support in the Iranian provinces in 743, oc- 
cupied Kufah in August 749, and defeated the last Umayyad 
caliph, Mansur II, in Iraq the following year. When they had 
finally subdued the empire, the Abbasid caliphs would inau- 
gurate a very different kind of society. 


The Abbasids had won support by carefully presenting them- 
selves in a Shii light, but once in power they shed this reli- 
gious camouflage and showed that they were determined to 
make the caliphate an absolute monarchy in the traditional 
agrarian way. Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah (750-54), the first Ab- 
basid caliph, massacred all the Umayyads he could lay his 
hands upon. Hitherto the indiscriminate slaughter of a noble 

54 . Karen Armstrong 

Arab family would have been unthinkable. Caliph Abu Jafar 
al-Mansur (754-75) murdered all the Shii leaders whom he 
considered a danger to his rule. These caliphs gave them- 
selves titles expressive of the divine right of kings. Al-Mansur 
indicated that God would give him "special help" to achieve 
victory; his son styled himself al-Mahdi (the Guided One), 
the term used by Shiis to describe a leader who would estab- 
lish the age of justice and peace. 

Caliph al-Mahdi (775-85), in choosing this title, might 
have been trying to woo the Shiis after the bloodshed commit- 
ted by his father. The Abbasids were acutely aware of the dis- 
content that had helped to bring down the Umayyads and 
realized that they must make concessions to the disaffected 
groups. Even though they were Arabs themselves, their vic- 
tory ended the old practice of giving Arabs privileged status in 
the empire. They moved their capital from Damascus to Iraq, 
settling first in Kufah and then in Baghdad. They promised to 
treat all the provinces equally and not to allow any ethnic 
group special status, which satisfied the mawalis. Their empire 
was egalitarian in that it was possible for any man of ability to 
make his way in the court and administration. But the move 
from Kufah to Baghdad was significant. The caliphs had left 
behind the ambience of the garrison towns, which had been 
built on the old tribal model and made each quarter equal and 
independent. The centre of Baghdad was the famous "round 
city," which housed the administration, the court and the royal 
family. The bazaars and homes of the artisans and servants 
were relegated to the periphery. Baghdad was built in a conve- 
nient location, beside the Tigris and close to the Sawad, the 
agricultural base of Iraq. But it was also close to Ctesiphon, the 
capital of the Persian Sassanids, and the new caliphate was 
modelled on the old pre-Islamic autocracy. 

By the time of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), the 
transformation was complete. Al-Rashid ruled like an old- 

Islam . 55 

style absolute monarch, not like the rashidun. He was isolated 
from his subjects; the old informality that had characterized 
life under the first caliphs was replaced by elaborate pomp. 
Courtiers kissed the ground when they came into his pres- 
ence, in a way that would have been unimaginable in the days 
when Arabs prostrated themselves only before God. Where 
the Prophet had always been addressed informally by his given 
name, like any other mortal, the caliph was styled the "Shadow 
of God on earth. " The executioner stood behind him, to show 
that the caliph had the power of life and death. The caliph no 
longer supervised the affairs of the ummah himself, but left 
government to his vizier. His role was to be a court of ultimate 
appeal, beyond the reach of factions and politicking. He led 
the prayers on Friday afternoons and led his army into major 
battles. The army itself had changed, however. It was no longer 
a people's army, open to any Muslim, but a corps of Persians, 
who had helped the Abbasids into power and were seen as the 
caliph's personal troops. 

This was, of course, abhorrent to the religious movement, 
whose members had had high hopes of the Abbasids when 
they first came to power. But however un-Islamic it was, the 
new caliphate was a political and economic success in these 
early days. The caliph's role was to provide his subjects with 
security, and under Harun al-Rashid, when the caliphate was 
at its peak, the empire enjoyed an unprecedented peace. Up- 
risings had been ruthlessly quashed, and the populace could 
see that opposition to this regime was pointless, but the upside 
was that people were able to live more normal, undisturbed 
lives. Harun al-Rashid was a patron of the arts and scholarship, 
and inspired a great cultural renaissance. Literary criticism, 
philosophy, poetry, medicine, mathematics and astronomy 
flourished not only in Baghdad but in Kufah, Basrah, Jun- 
dayvebar and Harran. Dhimmis participated in the florescence 
by translating the philosophical and medical texts of classical 

56 . Karen Armstrong 

Hellenism from Greek and Syriac into Arabic. Building on the 
learning of the past, which had thus become available to them, 
Muslim scholars made more scientific discoveries during this 
time than in the whole of previously recorded history. Indus- 
try and commerce also flourished, and the elite lived in refine- 
ment and luxury. But it was difficult to see how this regime 
was in any way Islamic. The caliph and his entourage lived in 
splendid isolation, which could not have been in more marked 
contrast to the asceticism of the Prophet and the rashidun. Far 
from confining themselves to the four wives prescribed in the 
Quran, they had vast harems like Sassanian monarchs. Never- 
theless, the religious reformers had no choice but to accept the 
Abbasids. Islam is a realistic and practical faith, which does not 
normally encourage the spirit of martyrdom or the taking of 
pointless risks. 

This realism was especially evident among the Shiis. Afier 
the tragic death of Husain in Kerbala, his immediate descen- 
dants had lived secluded and devout lives in Medina, even 
though many regarded them as the rightful imams of the 
u m m a h . Husain's oldest son, Ali Zayn al-Abidin (d. 714), who 
was known by Shiis as the Fourth Imam, since he had followed 
Ali, Hasan and Husain, was a mystic and left behind a beauti- 
ful collection of prayers. 3 Muhammad al-Baqir, the Fifih 
Imam (d. 735 had developed an esoteric method of reading 
the Quran: each word, each verse had a hidden (batin) mean- 
ing, which could only be discerned by means of mystical tech- 
niques of concentration, similar to those developed in all the 
world faiths to give the contemplative access to the inner re- 
gions of their being. This batin meaning probably expounded 
al-Baqir's new doctrine of the Imamate. His brother Zayd ibn 
Ali was a political activist and was eventually killed in an up- 
rising against the Umayyads in 740. To counter Zayd's claim to 
be the i m a m of his time, al-Baqir argued that the unique i 1 m of 
the Prophet was passed down the line of Ali's immediate de- 

Islam . 57 

scendants. Each one of the imams chose his successor and 
passed on the esoteric lore that enabled him to discover the sa- 
cred meaning of scripture. Only the imam who had received 
this special designation (nass) from his predecessor was the le- 
gitimate leader of the Muslims. He- al-Baqir- had received 
this nass from his father; Zayd had not. In 740, however, al- 
Baqir had few followers; most Shiis preferred Zayd's revolu- 
tionary politics to al-Baqir's mystical quietism, but after the 
Abbasids' ruthless suppression of all Shii dissent, they were 
ready to listen to Jafar al-Sadiq (d. 765), the Sixth Imam, who 
had himself been imprisoned by Caliph al-Mansur. Al-Sadiq 
reaffirmed and developed the doctrine of nass, declaring that 
even though he, as the designated imam, was the true leader of 
the u m m a h , he would not press his claim to the caliphate. 
Henceforth the imam would be a spiritual teacher; he would 
impart the divine i 1 m to his generation and guide them in the 
batin reading of the Quran, but Shiis must keep their doctrines 
and political beliefs to themselves in this dangerous political 

But this appealed only to a mystically inclined elite. Most 
Muslims needed a more accessible piety, and they found it in a 
new type of devotion, which had first emerged at the end of 
the Umayyad period but only achieved prominence during the 
reign of Harun al-Rashid. It was similar to the Christian devo- 
tion to Jesus, since it saw the Quran as God's uncreated Word, 
which had existed with him from all eternity, and which had, as 
it were, taken flesh and human form in the scripture revealed to 
Muhammad. Muslims could not see God, but they could hear 
him each time they listened to a recitation of the Quran, and 
felt that they had entered the divine presence. When they ut- 
tered the inspired words, God's speech was on their tongues 
and in their mouths; they held him in their hands when they 
carried the sacred book. This appalled the Mutazilites, since it 
offended their rational piety and their strict sense of the unity 

58 . Karen Armstrong 

and utter simplicity of God. This doctrine seemed to make the 
Quran a second divine being. But, like the esoteric Shiah, the 
Mutazilah was only for an intellectual minority, and this devo- 
tion to the Quran became extremely popular. Its adherents 
were known as the ahl al-hadith, the Hadith People, because 
they insisted that Muslim law must be based on the eyewitness 
"reports" of the maxims and customary practice (sunnah) of the 
Prophet. They disagreed with the followers of Abu Hanifah, 
who had deemed it essential for jurists to use their powers of 
"independent reasoning" (ijtihad), arguing that they must have 
the freedom to make new laws, even if they could not be based 
on a hadith or a Quranic utterance. 

The ahl al-hadith were, therefore, conservatives; they were 
in love with an idealized past; they venerated all the rashidun, 
and even Muawiyyah, who had been one of the Prophet's 
companions. Unlike the Mutazilites, who had often been po- 
litical activists, they insisted that the duty of "commanding the 
right and forbidding the wrong" was for only the very few; the 
rank and file must obey the caliph, whatever his religious cre- 
dentials. This was attractive to Harun al-Rashid, who was to 
conciliate the more pious movements and approved of the 
anti-revolutionary tendency of the ahl al-hadith. The Mu- 
tazilites fell from favour in Baghdad, and the Hadith People 
felt encouraged to ostracize them socially. On occasion, at 
their request, the government even imprisoned leading Mu- 

The Abbasids were aware of the strength of the religious 
movement and, once they had established their dynasty, they 
had tried to give their regime Islamic legitimacy. They there- 
fore encouraged the development of figh to regulate the life 
of the population. A split developed in the empire. The lives 
of the ordinary people would indeed be governed by the 
Shariah, as the body of Islamic law was called, but Muslim 
principles did not prevail in court circles nor among the 

Islam . 59 

higher officials of the government, who adhered to the more 
autocratic norms of the pre-Islamic period in order to make 
the Abbasid state a going concern. 

Under the Umayyads, each town had developed its own 
fiqh, but the Abbasids pressed the jurists to evolve a more uni- 
fied system of law. The nature of Muslim life had changed 
drastically since the time of the Quran. Since conversion to 
Islam had been encouraged, the dhimmis were becoming a mi- 
nority. Muslims were no longer a small elite group, isolated 
from the non-Muslim majority in the garrison towns. They 
were now the majority. Some of the Muslims had come to the 
faith recently, and were still imbued with their old beliefs and 
practices. A more streamlined system and recognized reli- 
gious institution was required to regulate Islamic life for the 
masses. A distinct class of ulama (religious scholars; singular: 
alim) began to emerge. Judges (qadis) received a more rigorous 
training, and both al-Mahdi and al-Rashid encouraged the 
study of law by becoming patrons of fiqh. Two outstanding 
scholars made a lasting contribution. In Medina, Malik ibn 
Anas (d. 795) compiled a compendium which he called al- 
Mutawattah (The Beaten Path). It was a comprehensive account 
of the customal law and religious practice of Medina, which, 
Malik believed, still preserved the original sunnah of the 
Prophet's community. Malik's disciples developed his theo- 
ries into the Maliki School (madhhab), which became preva- 
lent in Medina, Egypt and North Africa. 

But others were not convinced that present-day Medina 
was really a reliable guide to pristine Islam. Muhammad Idris 
ibn al-Shafii (d. 820), who had been born in poverty in Gaza 
and had studied with Malik in Medina, argued that it was not 
safe to rely on any one Islamic city, however august its pedi- 
gree. Instead all jurisprudence should be based on ahadith 
about the Prophet, who should be seen as the inspired inter- 
preter and not simply as the transmitter of the Quran. The 

60 . Karen Armstrong 

commands and laws of scripture could be understood in the 
light of Muhammad's words and actions. But, Shafii insisted, 
each hadith had to be reliably supported by a chain (isnad) of 
devout Muslims leading directly back to the Prophet himself. 
The isnad must be stringently examined, and if the chain was 
broken or if any one of its "links" could be shown to be a bad 
Muslim, the hadith must be rejected. Al-Shafii tried to medi- 
ate between the ahl al-hadith and those jurists, such as Abu 
Hanifah, who had insisted upon the necessity of ijtihad. Shafii 
agreed that some degree of ijtihad was necessary, but believed 
that it should be confined to a strict analogy (qiyas) between 
one of the Prophet's customs and contemporary practice. 
There were, al-Shafii taught, four "roots" of sacred law (usul 
al-fiqh): the Quran, the sunnah of the Prophet, qiyas (analogy) 
and ijmah, the "consensus" of the community. God would not 
allow the entire u m m a h to be in error, so if a custom was ac- 
cepted by all Muslims, it must be recognized as authentic, 
even if no Quranic reference or hadith could be found in its 
support. Al-Shafii's method was not capable of ensuring the 
strict historicity of the Prophet's sunnah, according to modern 
standards of accuracy, but it did provide a blueprint for the 
creation of a way of life that certainly gave Muslims a pro- 
found and satisfying religious experience. 

Al-Shafii's groundbreaking work led other scholars to the 
study of ahadith, according to his criteria. Two sound and au- 
thoritative anthologies were completed by al-Bukhari (d. 870) 
and Muslim (d. 878), which stimulated interest in fiqh and led 
eventually to the creation of a homogeneous religious life, 
based on the sacred law of the Shariah, throughout the vast 
Islamic Empire. The inspiration of the law was the person of 
the Prophet, the Perfect Man. By imitating the smallest de- 
tails of his external life and by reproducing the way he ate, 
washed, loved, spoke and prayed, Muslims hoped to be able to 
acquire his interior attitude of perfect surrender to God. Re- 

Islam • 61 

ligious ideas and practices take root not because they are pro- 
moted by forceful theologians, nor because they can be shown 
to have a sound historical or rational basis, but because they 
are found in practice to give the faithful a sense of sacred 
transcendence. To this day, Muslims remain deeply attached 
to the Shariah, which has made them internalize the arche- 
typal figure of Muhammad at a very deep level and, liberat- 
ing him from the seventh century, has made him a living 
presence in their lives and a part of themselves. 

But like all Islamic piety, the Shariah was also political. It 
constituted a protest against a society that was deemed by the 
religious to be corrupt. Both Malik ibn Anas and al-Shafii had 
taken part in Shii uprisings against the early Abbasids; both 
had been imprisoned for their politics, though they were re- 
leased and patronized by al-Mahdi and Harun al-Rashid, who 
wanted to exploit their expertise and create a uniform legal 
system throughout the empire. The Shariah totally rejected 
the aristocratic, sophisticated ethos of the court. It restricted 
the power of the caliph, stressed that he did not have the same 
role as the Prophet or the rashidun, but that he was only per- 
mitted to administer the sacred law. Courtly culture was thus 
tacitly condemned as un-Islamic. The ethos of the Shariah, 
like that of the Quran, was egalitarian. There were special 
provisions to protect the weak, and no institution, such as the 
caliphate or the court, had any power to interfere with the 
personal decisions and beliefs of the individual. Each Muslim 
had a unique responsibility to obey God's commands, and no 
religious authority, no institution (such as "the Church") and 
no specialized group of "clergy" could come between God 
and the individual Muslim. All Muslims were on the same 
footing; there was to be no clerical elite or priesthood acting 
as an intermediary. The Shariah was thus an attempt to re- 
build society on criteria that were entirely different from 
those of the court. It aimed to build a counter-culture and a 

62 . Karen Armstrong 

protest movement that would, before long, bring it into con- 
flict with the caliphate. 

By the end of the reign of Harun al-Rashid, it was clear 
that the caliphate had passed its peak. No single government 
could control such vast territory indefinitely, before the ad- 
vent of modern communications and modern means of coer- 
cion. Some of the peripheral provinces, such as Spain (where 
an escaping Umayyad had set up a rival dynasty in 756), were 
beginning to break away. The economy was in decline. Harun 
al-Rashid had tried to solve the problem by dividing the em- 
pire between his two sons, but this only resulted in a civil war 
(809- 1 3) between the brothers after his death. It was a mark of 
the secular spirit of the court at this date that unlike the fitnah 
wars of the past, there was no ideological or religious motiva- 
tion in this struggle, which was simply a clash of personal am- 
bition. When al-Mamun emerged as the victor and began his 
reign (813-33), it was clear that there were two main power 
blocs in the empire. One was the aristocratic circle of the 
court; the other, egalitarian and "constitutionalist," bloc was 
based on the Shariah. 

Al-Mamun was aware of the fragility of his rule. His reign 
had started with a civil war, with a Shii rebellion in Kufah and 
Basrah (8 14- 15) and a Kharajite revolt in Khurasan. He tried to 
woo these disparate groups and reduce the religious tension, 
but his policies only made matters worse. An intellectual him- 
self, he felt naturally drawn to the rationalism of the Mu- 
tazilites and brought them back into favour. He could also see 
that the populist movement of the ahl al-hadith, which insisted 
that the divine law was directly accessible to every single Mus- 
lim, was not compatible with absolute monarchy. Once back in 
power, however, the Mutazilites turned upon the ahl al-hadith, 
who had persecuted them for so long. An "inquisition" (mihnah) 
ensued, in which leading Hadith People, notably the popular 
Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 833), were imprisoned. Ibn Hanbal be- 

Islam • 63 

came a folk hero. Championing the Mutazilites had done al- 
Mamun no good; it had simply alienated the masses. At one 
point, the caliph tried to reach out towards the Shiis by naming 
Ali al-Rida, the Eighth Imam, as his heir, but the Shiis were, 
like the Mutazilites, simply another spiritual and intellectual 
elite and could not command the support of the ordinary peo- 
ple. A few months later, al-Rida conveniently died- possibly 
by foul play. 

Later caliphs also tried to woo the Shiis and oscillated be- 
tween one religious faction and another, to no avail. Caliph 
al-Mutasim (83342) attempted to strengthen the monarchy 
by making the army into his own personal corps. These 
troops were Turkish slaves, who had been captured from be- 
yond the River Oxus and converted to Islam. But this merely 
separated him still further from the populace, and there was 
tension between the Turkish soldiers and the people of Bagh- 
dad. To alleviate this, the caliph moved his capital to Samarra, 
some sixty miles to the south, but this simply isolated him 
still more, while the Turks, who had no natural links with the 
people, grew more powerful with every decade, until they 
would eventually be able to wrest effective control of the em- 
pire away from the caliphs. Increasingly, during the late ninth 
and early tenth centuries, there were armed revolts by those 
militant Shiis who were still committed to political activism 
and had not retreated into mystical quietism, and the eco- 
nomic crisis went from bad to worse. 

But these years of political disintegration also saw the con- 
solidation of what would become known as Sunni Islam. 
Gradually, the various legists, the Mutazilites and the ahl al- 
hadith pooled their differences and drew closer together. An 
important figure in this process was Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari 
(d. 935), who attempted to reconcile the theology of the Mu- 
tazilites with that of the Hadith People. The Mutazilites had 
been so fearful of anthropomorphic notions of God that they 

64 . Karen Armstrong 

denied that the divine had any "human" attributes at all. How 
could we say that God "spoke" or "sat on a throne," as the 
Quran averred? How could we talk of God's "knowledge" or 
"power"? The ahl al-hadith retorted that this wariness drained 
the experience of God of all content, and reduced the divine 
to a philosophical abstraction with no religious significance. 
Al-Ashari agreed, but appeased the Mutazilites by saying that 
God's attributes were not like human qualities. The Quran 
was God's uncreated speech, but the human words which ex- 
pressed it and the ink and paper of the book itself were cre- 
ated. There was no point in searching for a mysterious 
essence underlying reality. All we could know for certain 
were the concrete facts of history. There were, in al-Ashari's 
view, no natural laws. The world was ordered at every mo- 
ment by a direct intervention of God. There was no free will: 
men and women could not think unless the divine was think- 
ing in and through them; fire burned not because it was its na- 
ture to do so, but because God willed it. 

The Mutazilah had always been too abstruse for the vast 
majority of Muslims. Asharism became the predominant phi- 
losophy of Sunni Islam. It was obviously not a rationalist 
creed, but more of a mystical and contemplative discipline. It 
encouraged Muslims to see the divine presence everywhere, 
to look through external reality to the transcendent reality im- 
manent within it, in the way that the Quran instructed. It sat- 
isfied the hunger, that was so evident in the ideas of the 
Hadith People, for an immediate experience of God in con- 
crete reality. It was also a philosophy that was congenial to the 
spirit of the Shariah. By observing the sunnah of the Prophet 
in the smallest details of their lives, Muslims identified them- 
selves with the Prophet, whose life had been saturated with 
the divine. To imitate the Prophet, the Beloved (habib) of 
God- by being kind to orphans, to the poor or to animals, or 
by behaving at meals with courtesy and refinement-was to 
be loved by God himself. By weaving the divine imperative 

Islam • 65 

into the interstices of their lives, Muslims were cultivating 
that constant remembrance (dhikr) of God enjoined by the 
Q u r a n By. 4the middle of the tenth century this Shariah piety 
had been established throughout the empire. There were four 
recognized law schools, each regarded with Muslim egalitar- 
ianism as equally valid: the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbali 
schools, the latter preserving the ideals of Ibn Hanbal and the 
Hadith People. In practice, these four madhhabs did not differ 
markedly from one another. Each Muslim could choose the 
one he or she would follow, though most tended towards the 
one that was prevalent locally. 

But as one might expect, the chief factor that drew all 
Sunni Muslims together was political. The divine was experi- 
enced in the form taken by the community, and this affected a 
Muslim's personal piety. Sunni Muslims all revered Muham- 
mad and all four rashidun. Despite the failures of Uthman or 
Ali, these rulers had been devout men who far surpassed con- 
temporary rulers in the quality of their surrender to God. 
Sunnis refused to demote the first three rashidun, as the Shiis 
did, believing that Ali alone had been the legitimate imam of 
the ummah. Sunni piety was more optimistic than the tragic 
vision of the Shiis. It asserted that God could be with the 
ummah even in times of failure and conflict. The unity of the 
community was a sacred value, since it expressed the oneness 
of God. This was far more important than any sectarian divi- 
sion. It was crucial, therefore, for the sake of peace, to recog- 
nize the present caliphs, despite their obvious shortcomings. 
If Muslims lived according to the Shariah, they could create a 
counter-culture that would transform the corrupt political 
order of their day, and make it submit to God's will. 


This piety did not satisfy all Muslims, however, though it be- 
came the faith of the majority. Those who were more intel- 

66 . Karen Armstrong 

lectual or mystically inclined needed to interpret the religion 
differently. During the Abbasid period, four more complex 
forms of Islamic philosophy and spirituality emerged that ap- 
pealed to an elite. These ideas were kept secret from the 
masses, because the adepts believed that they could easily be 
misunderstood by those of meaner intelligence, and that they 
made sense only in a context of prayer and contemplation. 
The secrecy was also a self -protective device. Jafar as-Sadiq, 
the Sixth Imam of the Shiah, told his disciples to practise 
taqiyyah (dissimulation) for their own safety. These were per- 
ilous times for Shiis, who were in danger from the political es- 
tablishment. The ulama, the religious scholars, also doubted 
the orthodoxy of these esoteric groups. Taqiyyah kept conflict 
to a minimum. In Christendom, people who held beliefs that 
were different from the establishment were often persecuted 
as heretics. In Islam, these potential dissidents kept quiet 
about their ideas, and usually died in their beds. But the pol- 
icy of secrecy also had a deeper significance. The myths and 
theological insights of the esoterics were part of a total way of 
life. Mystical doctrines in particular could be experienced as 
imaginatively and intuitively valid, but were not necessarily 
comprehensible to the ordinary rational understanding of an 
outsider. They were like a poem or a piece of music, whose 
effect cannot be explained rationally, and which often re- 
quires a degree of aesthetic training and expertise if it is to be 
appreciated fully. 

The esoterics did not think that their ideas were heretical. 
They believed that they could see a more profound meaning 
in the revelation than the ordinary ulama. It must also be re- 
called that beliefs and doctrines are not as important in Islam 
as they are in Christianity. Like Judaism, Islam is a religion 
that requires people to live in a certain way, rather than to ac- 
cept certain credal propositions. It stresses orthopraxy rather 
than orthodoxy. All the Muslims who were attracted to the 

Islam • 61 

esoteric disciplines observed the five "Pillars" (rukn) or essen- 
tial practices of Islam. They were all in full agreement with 
the shahadah, the brief Muslim confession of faith: "There is 
no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. " They per- 
formed the salat prayer five times daily, paid the zakat alms, 
fasted during Ramadan, and, if their circumstances permit- 
ted, made the hajjto Mecca at least once in their lives. Any- 
body who remained faithful to the Pillars was a true Muslim, 
whatever his or her beliefs. 

We have already discussed the quietist form of Shiism, ex- 
pounded by Jafar as-Saddiq soon after the Abbasids came to 
power. Even though Shiis were as committed to Shariah piety 
as Sunnis and had their own madhhab (the Jafari School, 
named after as-Saddiq himself), they looked chiefly for guid- 
ance to the current imam, the repository of divine Urn for his 
generation. The imam was an infallible spiritual director and a 
perfect qadi. Like Sunnis, Shiis wanted to experience God as 
directly as the Muslims in the first community, who had wit- 
nessed the unfolding revelation of the Quran to the Prophet. 
The symbol of the divinely inspired imam reflected the Shii 
sense of sacred presence, discernible only to the true con- 
templative, but nevertheless immanent in a turbulent, dan- 
gerous world. The doctrine of the imamate also demonstrated 
the extreme difficulty of incarnating a divine imperative in 
the tragic conditions of ordinary political life. Shiis held that 
every single one of the imams had been murdered by the 
caliph of his day. The martyrdom of Husain, the Third Imam, 
at Kerbala was a particularly eloquent example of the perils 
that could accrue from the attempt to do God's will in this 
world. By the tenth century Shiis publicly mourned Husain 
on the fast day of Ashura (10 Muharram), the anniversary of 
his death. They would process through the streets, weeping 
and beating their breasts, declaring their undying opposition 
to the corruption of Muslim political life, which continued to 

68 . Karen Armstrong 

privilege the rich and oppress the weak, despite the clear 
commands of the Quran. Shiis who followed Jafar as-Saddiq 
may have abjured politics, but the passion for social justice 
was at the heart of their piety of protest. 

During the ninth century the hostility between the Ab- 
basid establishment and the Shiis came to the fore again as the 
caliphate declined. Caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-61) sum- 
moned the Tenth Imam, Ali al-Hadi, from Medina to 
Samarra and placed him under house arrest. He felt that he 
could not risk allowing this direct descendant of the Prophet 
to remain at large. Henceforth, the imams were virtually inac- 
cessible to the Shiis, and could communicate with the faithful 
only through "agents." When the Eleventh Imam died in 874, 
it was said that he left behind a young son, who had gone into 
hiding to save his life. Certainly there was no obvious trace of 
the Twelfth Imam, who may already have been dead. But still, 
the agents ruled the Shiis on his behalf, guiding their esoteric 
study of the Quran, collecting zakat and issuing legal judge- 
ments. In 934, when the Hidden Imam would have reached 
the term of his natural life, the "agent" brought the Shiis a 
special message from him. He had gone into "occultation," 
and had been miraculously concealed by God; he could have 
no further contact with the Shiis. He would return one day to 
inaugurate an era of justice, but only after a long time had 
passed. The myth of the Occultation of the Hidden Imam was 
not intended to be taken literally, as a statement of mundane 
fact. It was a mystical doctrine, which expressed our sense of 
the divine as elusive, absent or just out of reach, present in the 
world but not of it. It also symbolized the impossibility of im- 
plementing a truly religious policy in this world, since the 
caliphs had destroyed Ali's line and driven Urn from the earth. 
Henceforth the Shii ulama became the representatives of the 
Hidden Imam, and used their own mystical and rational in- 
sights to apprehend his will. Twelver Shiis (who believed in 

Islam • 69 

the twelve imams) would take no further part in political life, 
since in the absence of the Hidden Imam, the true leader of 
the ummah, no government could be legitimate. Their mes- 
sianic piety, which yearned for the imam's return, was expres- 
sive of a divine discontent with the state of the community. 

Not all Shiis were Twelvers, and not all abjured politics. 
Some (called Seveners or Ismailis) held that Ali's line had 
ended with Ismail, the son of Jafar as-Sadiq, who had been 
designated imam but had died before his father. They did not, 
therefore, recognize the legitimacy of Jafar's second son, 
Musa al-Kazim, whom Twelvers revered as the Seventh 
Imam.' They also developed an esoteric spirituality that 
looked for a hidden (batin) meaning in scripture, but instead 
of retiring from public life, they tried to devise a wholly dif- 
ferent political system and were often activists. In 909 an Is- 
maili leader managed to seize control of the province of 
Tunisia, giving himself the messianic title of al-Mahdi (the 
Guided One). In 983 the Ismailis wrested Egypt from the 
Abbasids, and set up their own rival caliphate in Cairo, which 
lasted nearly two hundred years. There were also secret Is- 
maili cells in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Yemen. Members were ini- 
tiated gradually into the sect by the local dai (agent). The 
religion practised in the lower grades was not unlike Sunnism, 
but as the initiate progressed he was introduced to a more ab- 
struse philosophy and spirituality, which made use of mathe- 
matics and science as a means of awakening a sense of 
transcendent wonder. Ismailis' meditations on the Quran gave 
them a cyclical view of history, which they believed to have 
been in decline ever since Satan had rebelled against God. 
There had been six great prophets (Adam, Noah, Abraham, 
Moses, Jesus and Muhammad) who had each reversed this 
downward trend. Each prophet had an "executor" who taught 
the secret meaning of his message to those who were capable 
of understanding it. Aaron, for example, had been Moses' ex- 

70 . Karen Armstrong 

ecutor, and Ali had been Muhammad's. As the faithful strug- 
gled to put their teachings into practice, they would prepare 
the world for the final reign of justice, which would be inau- 
gurated by the seventh prophet, the Mahdi. 

It was an attractive movement. Where the Sunni protest 
against court had made Sunnis suspicious of the arts and sci- 
ences, Ismailism offered the more intellectual Muslims a 
chance to study the new philosophy in a religious way. Their 
spiritual exegesis was a process of tawil (carrying back), which 
directed the attention of the worshipper beyond the literal 
meaning of scripture to the hidden, divine reality that was its 
original source. The Quran insists that God communicates 
with the faithful by means of "symbols" (ayat), since the di- 
vine can never be expressed in wholly rational or logical dis- 
course. Ismailis always alluded to God in the phrase, "He 
Whom the boldness of thought cannot contain." They also 
believed that no one revelation or theological system could 
ever be definitive, since God was always greater than human 
thought. Ismailis agreed that Muhammad had been the last 
and most important of the six major prophets, but also in- 
sisted that the full significance of the revelation that he had 
brought to the Arabs would become clear only when the 
Mahdi arrived. They were, therefore, open to the possibility 
of new truth, which was alarming to the more conservative of 
the ulama. But the Ismailis were not simply a contemplative 
sect. Like all true Muslims, they were concerned about the 
fate of the ummah, and believed that faith was worthless unless 
it was combined with political activism. By working for a just 
and decent society, they would pave the way for the arrival of 
the Mahdi. The Ismailis' success in establishing an enduring 
caliphate showed that their ideal had political potential, but it 
could never appeal to the majority. The Ismaili vision was too 
hierarchical and elitist to appeal to more than a small number 
of intellectual Muslims. 

Islam • 11 

The Ismailis derived a good deal of their cosmic symbol- 
ism from Falsafah, the third of the esoteric movements that 
emerged at this time. It sprang from the cultural renaissance 
inaugurated by the Abbasids, in particular the discovery of 
Greek philosophy, science and medicine that were now avail- 
able to Muslims in Arabic. The Faylasufs were enthralled by 
the Hellenistic cult of reason; they believed that rationalism 
was the highest form of religion, and wanted to relate its more 
elevated insights to the revelation of the Quran. They had a 
difficult task. The Supreme Deity of Aristotle and Plotinus 
was very different from Allah. It did not concern itself with 
earthly events, had not created the world and would not judge 
it at the end of time. Where monotheists had experienced 
God in the historical events of this world, the Faylasufs 
agreed with the Greeks that history was an illusion; it had no 
beginning, middle or end, since the universe emanated eter- 
nally from its First Cause. The Faylasufs wanted to get be- 
yond the transient flux of history, and learn to see the 
changeless, ideal world of the divine that lay beneath it. They 
regarded human reason as a reflection of the Absolute Reason 
which is God. By purifying our intellects of all that was not 
rational and learning to live in a wholly reasonable way, 
human beings could reverse the process of eternal emanation 
away from the divine, ascend from the multiplicity and com- 
plexity of life here below to the simplicity and singularity of 
the One. This process of catharsis, the Faylasufs believed, was 
the primordial religion of all humankind. All other cults were 
simply inadequate versions of the true faith of reason. 

Yet the Faylasufs were usually devout men, who believed 
that they were good Muslims. Their rationalism was itself a 
kind of faith, because it takes courage and great trust to be- 
lieve that the world is rationally ordered. A Faylasuf dedi- 
cated himself to living the whole of his life in a reasonable 
manner; he wanted to bring all his experiences and values to- 

72 . Karen Armstrong 

gether so that they formed a consistent, total and logical 
world-view. It was, perhaps, a philosophical version of tawhid. 
Faylasufs were good Muslims too in their social concern; they 
despised the luxurious society of the court and the despotism 
of the caliphs. Some of them wanted to transform society ac- 
cording to their ideal. They worked as astrologers and physi- 
cians in the court and other great households, and this had a 
marked though marginal effect on the culture. None of the 
Faylasufs attempted such a comprehensive reformation as the 
ulama, however, and produced nothing with the popular ap- 
peal of the Shariah. 

Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (d. 870) was the first major Fayla- 
suf or "Philosopher" of the Muslim world. Born in Kufah and 
educated in Basrah, he settled finally in Baghdad, where he 
enjoyed the patronage of al-Mamun. In the capital he worked 
closely with the Mutazilites in their attempt to rid theology 
(kalam) of anthropomorphism, but he did not confine himself, 
as they did, to Muslim sources, but sought wisdom also from 
the Greek sages. Thus he applied Aristotle's proof for the ex- 
istence of the First Cause to the God of the Quran. Like all 
the later Faylasufs, he believed that Muslims should seek 
truth wherever it was found, even from foreign peoples whose 
religion was different from their own. The revealed teachings 
in the Quran about God and the soul were parables of ab- 
stract philosophical truths, which made them accessible to 
the masses, who were incapable of rational thought. Revealed 
religion, therefore, was a "poor man's Falsafah," as it were. A 
Faylasuf such as al-Kindi was not trying to subordinate reve- 
lation to reason, but to see the inner soul of scripture, in 
rather the same way as the Shiis sought the batin truth of the 

It was, however, a musician of Turkish origin who fully es- 
tablished the Islamic tradition of rationalistic philosophy. 
Abu Nasr al-Farabi (d. 950) went further than al-Kindi in see- 

Islam . 73 

ing philosophy as higher than revealed religion, which be- 
came, in his view, a mere expedient and a natural social ne- 
cessity. Where al-Farabi differed from both the Greek 
rationalists and from Christian philosophers, however, was in 
the importance he gave to politics. He seems to have believed 
that the triumph of Islam had at last made it possible to build 
the rational society that Plato and Aristotle had only been 
able to dream about. Islam was a more reasonable religion 
than its predecessors. It had no illogical doctrines, such as the 
Trinity, and stressed the importance of law. Al-Farabi be- 
lieved that Shii Islam, with its cult of the imam as the guide of 
the community, could prepare ordinary Muslims to live in a 
society ruled by a philosopher-king on rational principles. 
Plato had argued that a well-ordered society needed doc- 
trines which the masses believed to be divinely inspired. 
Muhammad had brought a law, backed by such divine sanc- 
tions as hell, which would persuade the ignorant in a way that 
more logical arguments could not. Religion was thus a branch 
of political science, and should be studied and observed by a 
good Faylasuf, even though he would see further to the kernel 
of the faith than the average Muslim. 

It is significant, however, that al-Farabi was a practising 
Sufi. The different esoteric groups tended to overlap and to 
have more in common with one another than with the more 
conservative ulama. Mystically inclined Shiis and Faylasufs 
tended to gravitate together, as did Shiis and Sufis, who may 
have had different political views but shared a similar spiri- 
tual outlook. Sufism, the mysticism of Sunni Islam, is differ- 
ent from the other schools that we have considered, since it 
did not develop an overtly political philosophy. Instead, it 
seemed to have turned its back on history, and Sufis sought 
God in the depths of their being rather than in current events. 
But nearly all religious movements in Islam take off, at least, 
from a political perspective, and Sufism was no exception. It 

74 . Karen Armstrong 

had its roots in the asceticism (zuhd) that developed during 
the Umayyad period as a reaction against the growing world- 
liness and luxury of Muslim society. It was an attempt to get 
back to the primitive simplicity of the ummah when all Mus- 
lims had lived as equals. The ascetics often wore the kind of 
coarse woollen garment (tasawwuf) that was standard among 
the poor, as the Prophet had done. By the early ninth century 
the term tasawwuf (which gives us our "Sufi") had become 
synonymous with the mystical movement that was slowly de- 
veloping in Abbasid society. 

Sufism was also probably a reaction against the growth of 
jurisprudence, which seemed to some Muslims to be reduc- 
ing Islam to a set of purely exterior rules. Sufis wanted to re- 
produce within themselves that state of mind that made it 
possible for Muhammad to receive the revelations of the 
Quran. It was his interior islam that was the true foundation of 
the law, rather than the usul al-fiqh of the jurists. Where estab- 
lishment Islam was becoming less tolerant, seeing the Quran 
as the only valid scripture and Muhammad's religion as the 
one true faith, Sufis went back to the spirit of the Quran in 
their appreciation of other religious traditions. Some, for ex- 
ample, were especially devoted to Jesus, whom they saw as 
the ideal Sufi since he had preached a gospel of love. Others 
maintained that even a pagan who prostrated himself before a 
stone was worshipping the Truth (al-haqq) that existed at the 
heart of all things. Where the ulama and the jurists were in- 
creasingly coming to regard revelation as finished and com- 
plete, the Sufis, like the Shiis, were constantly open to the 
possibility of new truths, which could be found anywhere, 
even in other religious traditions. Where the Quran described 
a God of strict justice, Sufis, such as the great woman ascetic 
Rabiah (d. 80 1 ) , spoke of a God of love. 

All over the world and in every major faith tradition, men 
and women who have a talent for this type of interior journey 
have developed certain techniques that enable them to enter 

Islam . 75 

deeply into the unconscious mind and experience what seems 
like a presence in the depths of their being. Sufis learned to 
concentrate their mental powers while breathing deeply and 
rhythmically; they fasted, kept night vigils and chanted as a 
mantra the Divine Names attributed to God in the Quran. 
Sometimes this induced a wild, unrestrained ecstasy, and 
such mystics became known as "drunken Sufis." One of the 
earliest of these was Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 874), who 
wooed Allah like a lover. But he also learned the discipline of 
fanah (annihilation): by gradually peeling away the layers of 
egotism (which, all spiritual writers agree, holds us back from 
the experience of the divine), Al-Bistami found an enhanced 
self in the ground of his own being that was nothing other 
than Allah himself, who told al-Bistami: "I am through Thee; 
there is no god but Thou." This potentially shocking reword- 
ing of the shahadah expresses a profound truth, which has 
been discovered by mystics in many different faith traditions. 
The shahadah proclaimed that there was no God, no reality 
but Allah, so it must be true that once self is finally cancelled 
out in a perfect act of islam, all human beings are potentially 
divine. Husain al-Mansur (d. 922), also known as al-Hallaj, 
the Wool-Carder, is said to have made a similar claim, crying: 
"Am al-Haqq!"("I am the Truth!" or "I am the Real!"), though 
some scholars have suggested that this should read: "I see the 

Hallaj was executed by the ulama for claiming that it was 
possible to make a valid hajj in spirit, while staying at home. 
His death shows the hostility that was developing between 
the Sufis and the ulama. Junayd of Baghdad (d. 910), the first 
of the so-called "sober Sufis," withdrew from this type of ex- 
tremism. He thought that the intoxication experienced by al- 
Bistami was merely a phase which the mystic must transcend 
in order to achieve an enhanced sense of self and a more 
complete self-possession. When a Sufi first heard the divine 
call, he or she became aware of their painful separation from 

76 . Karen Armstrong 

the source of all being. The mystical journey was simply a re- 
turn to what is truly natural to humanity, a doctrine very sim- 
ilar to that held by Buddhists. Sufism remained a fringe 
movement during the first Abbasid period, but later Sufi mas- 
ters would build on Junayd's system and create an esoteric 
movement which, unlike the others we have considered, 
would captivate the majority of Muslims. 

Even though they all claimed to be devout, committed 
Muslims, the esoterics had all changed the religion of the 
Prophet. Muhammad would have been startled by the doc- 
trines of the Faylasufs, and Ah would almost certainly not 
have recognized the ideas and myths of the Shiis, who de- 
clared themselves to be his partisans. But, despite the convic- 
tions of many of the faithful in any tradition, who are 
convinced that religion never changes and that their beliefs 
and practices are identical with those of the founders of their 
faith, religion must change in order to survive. Muslim re- 
formers would find the esoteric forms of Islam inauthentic, 
and would try to get back to the purity of the first ummah, be- 
fore it was corrupted by these later accretions. But it is never 
possible to go back in time. Any "reformation," however con- 
servative its intention, is always a new departure, and an adap- 
tation of the faith to the particular challenges of the reformer's 
own time. Unless a tradition has within it the flexibility to de- 
velop and grow, it will die. Islam proved that it had this cre- 
ative capacity. It could appeal at a profound level to men and 
women who lived in conditions that were quite different from 
the desperate, brutal era of the Prophet. They could see 
meaning in the Quran that went far beyond the literal sense of 
the words, and which transcended the circumstances of the 
original revelations. The Quran became a force in their lives 
that gave them intimations of the sacred, and which enabled 
them to build fresh spiritualities of great power and insight. 

The Muslims of the ninth and tenth centuries had moved 

Islam . 77 

far from the first little beleaguered ummah in Medina. Their 
philosophy,//^/? and mystical disciplines were rooted in the 
Quran and in the beloved figure of the Prophet, but because 
scripture was God's word, it was thought to be infinite and ca- 
pable of multiple interpretation. They were thus able to make 
the revelation speak to Muslims who lived in a world that the 
Prophet and the rashidun could not have imagined. But one 
thing remained constant. Like the religion of the very first 
ummah, the philosophy, law and spirituality of Islam were pro- 
foundly political. Muslims were acutely aware-in a way that 
was admirable-that for all its glittering cultural attainments, 
the empire they had created did not live up to the standards 
of the Quran. The caliph was the leader of the ummah, but he 
lived and ruled in a way that would have horrified the 
Prophet. Whenever there was a marked discrepancy between 
the Quranic ideal and the current polity, Muslims would feel 
that their most sacred values had been violated; the political 
health of the ummah could touch the deepest core of their 
being. In the tenth century, the more perceptive Muslims 
could see that the caliphate was in trouble, but so alien was it 
to the spirit of Islam that Muslims would experience its de- 
cline as a liberation. 


A NEW ORDER (935-1258) 

By the tenth century it was clear that Islamdom could no 
longer function effectively as a single political unit. The 
caliph would remain the nominal head of the ummah and re- 
tain a symbolic, religious function, but in practice the differ- 
ent regions of the empire were governed independently. 
From Egypt, the breakaway caliphate of the Ismaili Fatimids' 
ruled North Africa, Syria, much of Arabia, and Palestine; in 
Iraq, Iran and Central Asia, Turkish army officers (amirs) 
seized power and established what were really independent 
states, competing with one another militarily. The tenth cen- 
tury has been called the Shii century, because many of these 
dynasties had vague Shii leanings. But all the amirs continued 
to acknowledge the Abbasid caliph as the supreme leader of 
the ummah, so entrenched was the ideal of absolute monarchy. 
These dynasties achieved some political success. One even 
managed to found a permanent Muslim base in north-west 
India in the early eleventh century. But none managed to sur- 
vive for very long, until the Seljuk Turks, from the lower Syr 
basin, seized power in Baghdad in 1055 and came to a special 
arrangement with the caliph, who recognized them as his 
lieutenants throughout the Dar al-Islam. During the years be- 
fore the Seljuk victory, it had seemed as though the empire 
was doomed to perpetual disintegration. As one dynasty suc- 
ceeded another and as frontiers shifted, an outside observer 
might have been justified in assuming that, after an initial pe- 
riod of success, Islamdom was in decline. 

But he would have been wrong. In fact, almost by accident, 
a new order was emerging that would be much more conge- 
nial to the Muslim spirit. Despite the political turbulence, Is- 

The Disintegration of the 
Abbasid Empire 

Oj Fa:inid "territory E^|?j Buy'd Termory 

-^— Samanid Borders Empire of Sudan Mahmud 

of Ghaznao1Q30 

Islam . 83 

lamic religion was going from strength to strength. Each re- 
gion had its own capital, so that instead of one cultural centre 
in Baghdad, there were now several. Cairo became a vital city 
of art and learning under the Fatimids. Philosophy flourished 
there and in the tenth century the caliphs founded the college 
of al-Azhar, destined to become the most important Islamic 
university in the world. Samarkand also saw a Persian literary 
renaissance. One of its luminaries was the Faylasuf Abu Ali 
ibn Sina (980-1037), who is known as Avicenna in the West. 
Ibn Sina had been a disciple of al-Farabi, but took religion far 
more seriously. In his view a prophet was the ideal philoso- 
pher, not merely a purveyor of abstract rational truth for the 
masses, because he had access to insights that did not depend 
upon discursive thought. Ibn Sina was interested in Sufism, 
and recognized that mystics attained an experience of the di- 
vine that could not be reached by logical processes, but which 
did cohere with Faylasuf notions. Both Falsafah and the faith 
of the mystics and the conventionally pious were therefore in 

Cordova also experienced a cultural florescence, even 
though the Umayyad caliphate in Spain had eventually col- 
lapsed in 1010 and disintegrated into a number of rival, inde- 
pendent courts. The Spanish renaissance was particularly 
famous for its poetry, which resembled that of the French 
troubadour courtly tradition. The Muslim poet Ibn Hazam 
(994 — 1064) developed a simpler piety, which relied solely on 
ahadith, and jettisoned complex fiqh and metaphysical philoso- 
phy. Nevertheless, one of Spain's later intellectual stars was 
the Faylasuf Abu al-Walid Ahmad ibn Rushd (1126-98), who 
was less important in the Muslim world than the more mysti- 
cally inclined Ibn Sina, but whose rationalistic thought influ- 
enced such Jewish and Christian philosophers as Maimonides, 
Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great. In the nineteenth cen- 
tury the philologist Ernest Renan hailed Ibn Rushd (who is 

84 . Karen Armstrong 

known in the West as Averroes) as a free spirit, an early cham- 
pion of rationalism against blind faith. But in fact, Ibn Rushd 
was a devout Muslim and a qadi judge of Shariah law. Like Ibn 
Sina, he believed that there was no contradiction between re- 
ligion and Falsafah, but that while religion was for everybody, 
only an intellectual elite should attempt philosophy. 

It seems that once the caliphate had be en -for all practical 
purposes - abandoned, Islam got a new lease of life. There 
had always been tension between the ideals of absolute 
monarchy and the Quran. The new polities that were emerg- 
ing in the Islamic world by a process of trial and error were 
closer to the Islamic vision. Not that all the new rulers were 
pious Muslims-far from it-but the system of independent 
courts and rulers, all on a par with one another but contained 
within a loose notional unity, approximated more truly the 
egalitarian spirit of the Quran. It was also in harmony with 
the art that was emerging in the Muslim world at this period. 
The arabesque does not give more emphasis to one letter than 
to another; each character has its place and makes its unique 
contribution to the whole. Muslim historians, such as Ibn 
Ishaq and Abu Jafar al-Tabari (d. 923), made little attempt to 
synchronize the sometimes conflicting traditions about the 
Prophet's life, but simply juxtaposed rival versions, giving 
each equal value. Muslims had accepted the caliphate be- 
cause it guaranteed the unity of the ummah, but once the 
caliphs showed that they could not integrate the empire any 
longer, they were content to relegate them to symbolic status. 
There was a change in Islamic piety. Hitherto, theology and 
spirituality had nearly always been rooted in a political re- 
sponse to the historical circumstances of the Muslim commu- 
nity. But now that Muslims had more congenial political 
arrangements, Muslim thought and devotion were less driven 
by current events. Significantly, Islam became more political 
again during the modern period, when Muslims faced new 

Islam . 85 

perils which, they felt, put the moral, cultural and religious 
well-being of the ummah in jeopardy, and even threatened its 
very survival. 

It was the Seljuk Turks who, more by accident than de- 
sign, gave fullest expression to the new order in the Fertile 
Crescent, where this decentralization was more advanced. 
The Seljuks were Sunnis, with a strong tendency towards 
Sufism. Their empire was ruled from 1063 to 1092 by the 
brilliant Persian vizier Nizamulmulk, who wanted to use the 
Turks to restore unity to the empire and rebuild the old 
Abbasid bureaucracy. But it was too late to revive Baghdad, 
since the agricultural region of the Sawad, the basis of its 
economy, was in irreversible decline. Nor was Nizamulmulk 
able to control the Seljuk army, a cavalry force of nomadic 
tribesmen who were still a law unto themselves and moved 
with their herds wherever they wished. But, with the aid of 
a new slave corps, Nizamulmulk did build an empire which 
reached as far as Yemen in the south, to the Syr-Oxus basin 
in the east and into Syria in the west. This new Seljuk Em- 
pire had very few formal political institutions, and order was 
imposed at the local level by the amirs and the ulama, who set 
up an ad hoc partnership. The amirs who commanded the 
various districts pre-empted Nizamulmulk's centralizing 
plans by becoming virtually independent, administering 
their own regions and taking the land revenues directly 
from the inhabitants instead of from Baghdad. This was not 
a feudal system, since, whatever the vizier may have in- 
tended, the amirs were not the vassals of the caliph nor of 
the Seljuk Sultan Malikshah. The amirs were nomads who 
had no interest in farming their territory, so they did not 
form a feudal aristocracy, tied to the land. They were sol- 
diers, and not much interested in the civil life of their sub- 
jects, which became in effect the province of the ulama. 

The ulama held these scattered military regimes together. 

86 . Karen Armstrong 

During the tenth century they had become dissatisfied with 
the standard of their education, and had established the first 
madrasahs, colleges for the study of Islamic sciences. This 
made their training more systematic, their learning more 
uniform, and enhanced the status of the clergy. Nizalmul- 
mulk encouraged the building of madrasahs throughout the 
Seljuk Empire, adding subjects to the curriculum that would 
enable the ulama to work in local government. In Baghdad, he 
founded the prestigious Nizamiyyah madrasah in 1067. Now 
that they had their own institutions, the ulama had a power 
base, which became distinct from but equivalent to the mili- 
tary courts of the amirs. The standardized madrasahs also pro- 
moted the homogeneous Muslim lifestyle fostered by the 
Shariah throughout the Seljuk domains. The ulama also mo- 
nopolized the legal system in their Shariah courts. A de facto 
split had thus occurred between political power and the civil 
life of the community. None of the mini-states run by the 
amirs lasted long; they had no political ideology. The amirs 
were very temporary functionaries, and all the idealism of 
the empire was provided by the ulama and the Sufi masters 
(pirs), who had their own separate sphere. Learned ulama 
would travel from one madrasah to another; the Sufi pirs were 
notoriously mobile, journeying from one town and one cen- 
tre to another. The religious personnel began to provide the 
glue that held the disparate society together. 

Thus after the demise of the effective caliphate the em- 
pire became more Islamic. Instead of feeling that they be- 
longed to one of the ephemeral states of the amirs, Muslims 
began to see themselves as members of a more international 
society, represented by the ulama, which was coextensive 
with the whole Dar al-Islam. The ulama adapted the Shariah 
to these new circumstances. Instead of using Muslim law to 
build a counterculture, the Shariah now saw the caliph as the 
symbolic guardian of the sacred law. As the amirs came and 

Islam . 87 

went, the ulama, with the backing of the Shariah, became the 
only stable authority, and as Sufism became more popular, 
the piety of the people deepened and acquired an interior 

Sunni Islam now seemed in the ascendant almost every- 
where. Some of the more radical Ismailis, who had become 
disillusioned with the Fatimid Empire, which had so 
signally failed to impose the true faith on the ummah, set up 
an underground network of guerrillas, dedicated to the 
overthrow of the Seljuks and the destruction of the Sunnis. 
From 1090 they conducted raids from their mountain 
fortress in Alamut, north of Qazvin, seizing Seljuk 
strongholds and murdering leading amirs. By 1092 this had 
become a full-scale revolt. The rebels became known by 
their enemies as the hashishin (which gives us our word "as- 
sassin"), because they were said to use hashish to give them 
the courage to take part in attacks that often resulted in their 
own death. The Ismailis believed that they were the cham- 
pions of the ordinary people, who were themselves often 
harassed by the amirs, but this campaign of terror turned 
most Muslims against the Ismailis. The ulama spread wild 
and inaccurate stories about them (the hashish legend being 
one of these myths), people who were suspected of being Is- 
mailis were rounded up and killed and these massacres led 
to fresh Ismaili attacks. But despite this opposition, the Is- 
mailis managed to build a state around Alamut, which lasted 
150 years and which only the Mongol invaders were able to 
destroy. The immediate effect of their jihad, however, was 
not, as they had hoped, the advent of the Mahdi, but the dis- 
crediting of the whole of the Shiah. The Twelvers, who had 
taken no part in the Ismaili revolt, were careful to appease 
the Sunni authorities and to abstain from any political in- 
volvement. For their part, Sunnis were ready to respond to a 
theologian who was able to give magisterial definition of 

88 . Karen Armstrong 

their faith and who has been called the most important Mus- 
lim since the Prophet Muhammad. 

Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), a protege of 
vizier Nizamulmulk, a lecturer at the Nizamiyyah madrasah in 
Baghdad and an expert in Islamic law, suffered a nervous 
breakdown in 1095. The Ismaili revolution was at this time at 
its height, but al-Ghazzali was chiefly distressed by the possi- 
bility that he was losing his faith. He found that he was para- 
lyzed and could not speak; his doctors diagnosed a deep-seated 
emotional conflict, and later Ghazzali explained that he was 
concerned that though he knew a great deal about God, he did 
not know God himself. He therefore went off to Jerusalem, 
practised Sufi exercises and returned to Iraq ten years later to 
write his masterpiece lyah alum al-Din (The Revival of the Reli- 
gious Sciences). It became the most-quoted Muslim text after the 
Quran and the ahadith. It was based on the important insight 
that only ritual and prayer could give human beings a direct 
knowledge of God; the arguments of theology (kalam) and Fal- 
safah, however, could give us no certainty about the divine. The 
lyah provides Muslims with a daily spiritual and practical regi- 
men, designed to prepare them for this religious experience. 
All the Shariah rules about eating, sleeping, washing, hygiene 
and prayer were given a devotional and ethical interpretation, 
so that they were no longer simply external directives, but en- 
abled Muslims to cultivate that perpetual consciousness of the 
divine that is advocated by the Quran. The Shariah had thus 
become more than a means of social conformity and a slavish 
exterior imitation of the Prophet and his sunnah it became a 
way of achieving interior islam. Al-Ghazzali was not writing for 
the religious experts, but for devout individuals. There were, 
he believed, three sorts of people: those who accept the truths 
of religion without questioning them; those who try to find jus- 
tification for their beliefs in the rational discipline of kalam; and 
the Sufis, who have a direct experience of religious truth. 

The Seljuk Empire 

90 . Karen Armstrong 

Al-Ghazzali was aware that in their new political circum- 
stances people needed different religious solutions. He dis- 
liked the Ismaili devotion to an infallible imam: where was this 
imam? How could ordinary people find him? This dependence 
upon an authority figure seemed to violate the egalitarianism 
of the Quran. Falsafah, he acknowledged, was indispensable 
for such disciplines as mathematics or medicine, but it could 
give no reliable guide to spiritual matters that lie beyond the 
use of reason. In al-Ghazzali's view, Sufism was the answer, 
because its disciplines could lead to a direct apprehension of 
the divine. In the early days, the ulama had been alarmed by 
Sufism, and regarded it as a dangerous fringe movement. Now 
al-Ghazzali urged the religious scholars to practise the con- 
templative rituals that the Sufi mystics had developed and to 
promote this interior spirituality at the same time as they 
propagated the external rules of the Shariah. Both were cru- 
cial to Islam. Al-Ghazzali had thus given mysticism a ringing 
endorsement, using his authority and prestige to assure its in- 
corporation into mainstream Muslim life. 

Al-Ghazzali was recognized as a supreme religious au- 
thority in his own time. During this period Sufism became a 
popular movement, and was no longer confined to an elite. 
Now that the people's piety was not preoccupied, as in the 
early days, with the politics of the ummah, they were ready for 
the ahistorical, mythical inward journey of the mystic. Instead 
of being a solitary practice for esoteric Muslims, dhikr (the 
chanting of the Divine Names) became a group activity that 
propelled Muslims into an alternative state of consciousness, 
under the guidance of their pir. Sufis listened to music to 
heighten their awareness of transcendence. They clustered 
around their pirs, as Shiis had once gathered around their 
imams, seeing them as their guide to God. When apir died, he 
became, in effect, a "saint," a focus of sacredness, and the peo- 
ple would pray and hold dhikrs at his tomb. Each town now 

Islam • 91 

had its khanqah (convent), as well as a mosque or a madrasah, 
where the local pir instructed his disciples. New Sufi orders 
(tariqahs) were formed, which were not bound to a particular 
region but which were international, with branches all over 
the Dar al-Islam. These tariqahs thus became another source 
of unity in the decentralized empire. So were the new broth- 
erhoods and guilds (futuwwabs) for artisans and merchants in 
the towns, which were greatly influenced by Sufi ideals. In- 
creasingly, it was the Islamic institutions that were pulling the 
empire together and, at the same time, the faith of even the 
most uneducated Muslims was acquiring an inner resonance 
that had once been the preserve of a sophisticated and eso- 
teric elite. 

Henceforth there would be no theological or philosophical 
discourse in Islam that was not deeply fused with spirituality. 
New "theosophers" began to expound this new Muslim syn- 
thesis. In Aleppo, Yahya Suhrawardi (d. 1191) founded a 
school of illumination (al-ishraq) based on ancient pre- 
Islamic Iranian mysticism. He saw true philosophy as the re- 
sult of a marriage between the disciplined training of the 
intellect through Falsafah and the interior transformation of 
the heart effected by Sufism. Reason and mysticism must go 
hand in hand; both were essential to human beings, and both 
were needed in the pursuit of truth. The visions of the mys- 
tics and the symbols of the Quran (such as heaven, hell and 
the Last Judgement) could not be proved empirically, but 
could only be glimpsed by the trained intuitive faculty of the 
contemplative. Outside this mystical dimension, the myths of 
religion made no sense, because they were not "real" in the 
same way as earthly phenomena which we experience with 
our normal waking consciousness. A mystic trained him- or 
herself to see the interior dimension of earthly existence by 
means of the Sufi disciplines. Muslims had to cultivate a 
sense of the alam al-mithal, "the world of pure images," which 

92 . Karen Armstrong 

exists between our ordinary world and God's. Even those who 
were not trained mystics became aware of this world in 
dreams or in the hypnogogic imagery that can surface as we 
fall asleep or into a trance state. When a prophet or a mystic 
had a vision, Suhrawardi believed, he had become aware of 
this interior realm, which could correspond to what we call 
the unconscious mind today. 

This type of Islam would have been unrecognizable to 
Hasan al-Basri or Shafii. Suhrawardi may have been executed 
for his views but he was a devout Muslim, who quoted the 
Quran more extensively than any previous Faylasuf His 
works are still read as mystical classics. So are the books of 
the prolific and highly influential Spanish theosopher Muid 
ad-Din ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240), who also urged Muslims to dis- 
cover the alam al-mithal within them, and taught that the way 
to God lay through the creative imagination. Ibn al-Arabi's 
books were not easy and appealed to the more intellectual 
Muslims, but he believed that anybody could be a Sufi, and 
that everybody should look for the symbolic, hidden meaning 
of scripture. Muslims had a duty to create their own theopha- 
nies, by training their imaginations to see below the surface to 
the sacred presence that resides in everything and everyone. 
Every single human being was a unique and unrepeatable 
revelation of one of God's hidden attributes, and the only 
God we will ever know is the Divine Name inscribed in our 
inmost self. This vision of a personal Lord was conditioned 
by the faith tradition into which a person was born. Thus the 
mystic must see all faiths as equally valid, and is at home in a 
synagogue, mosque, temple or church, for, as God says in the 
Quran: "Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.'" 

Thus there had been a religious revolution after the 
demise of the caliphate. It affected the humble artisan as well 
as the sophisticated intellectual. A truly Muslim people had 
come into being, who had learned to endorse the faith at a 

Islam . 93 

profound level. Muslims had responded to what might have 
been a political disaster with a vast spiritual renewal, which 
reinterpreted the faith to meet the new conditions. Islam was 
now thriving without government support. Indeed, it was the 
only constant in a world of political flux. 


The new order of politically autonomous amirs, which had 
come into being under the Seljuk Turks, continued after their 
empire had begun to fall apart at the end of the eleventh cen- 
tury. The system had obvious drawbacks. The amirs con- 
stantly fought one another, and found it very difficult to band 
together against an external foe. This became tragically ap- 
parent in July 1099, when the Christian Crusaders from west- 
ern Europe attacked Jerusalem, the third holiest city in the 
Islamic world after Mecca and Medina, massacred its inhabi- 
tants and established states in Palestine, the Lebanon and 
Anatolia. The amirs of the region, who were fighting each 
other as the Seljuk Empire declined, could make no united ri- 
poste, and seemed powerless against this aggressive Western 
intrusion. It was fifty years before Imad ad-Din Zangi, amir of 
Mosul and Aleppo, was able to drive the Crusaders from Ar- 
menia in 1 144, and almost another half-century before Yusuf 
ibn Ayyub Salah ad-Din, the Kurdish general who is known as 
Saladin in the West, was able in 1187 to take Jerusalem from 
the Crusaders, who managed, however, to retain a foothold in 
the Near East along the coast until the end of the thirteenth 
century. Because of this external threat, the Ayyubid dynasty 
founded by Saladin lasted far longer than the more 
ephemeral states of the amirs in the Fertile Crescent. At an 
early stage of his campaign, Saladin had defeated the Fatimid 
dynasty in Egypt, incorporated its territory into his growing 
empire and returned its inhabitants to Sunni Islam. 

. &&& 


Islam . 95 

The Crusades were disgraceful but formative events in 
Western history; they were devastating for the Muslims of the 
Near East, but for the vast majority of Muslims in Iraq, Iran, 
Central Asia, Malaya, Afghanistan and India, they were re- 
mote border incidents. It was only in the twentieth century, 
when the West had become more powerful and threatening, 
that Muslim historians would become preoccupied by the 
medieval Crusades, looking back with nostalgia to the victo- 
rious Saladin, and longing for a leader who would be able to 
contain the neo-Crusade of Western imperialism. 


The immediate cause of the Crusades had been the Seljuks' 
conquest of Syria from the Fatimids in 1070. During their 
campaign, they had also come into conflict with the now ail- 
ing Byzantine Empire, whose borders were poorly defended. 
When the Seljuk cavalry crossed the lines and entered Anato- 
lia, they inflicted a devastating defeat on the Byzantines at the 
Battle of Manzikurt in 1071. Within a decade Turkish no- 
mads had taken to roaming freely throughout Anatolia with 
their flocks, and amirs founded small states there, manned by 
Muslims who saw Anatolia as the new frontier and a land of 
opportunity. Powerless to stop this Turkish advance, the 
Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus I asked the Pope for 
aid in 1091, and in response Pope Urban II summoned the 
First Crusade. The Crusaders' occupation of parts of Anato- 
lia did not long stem the Turkish conquest of the region. By 
the end of the thirteenth century the Turks had reached the 
Mediterranean; during the fourteenth century they crossed 
the Aegean, settled in the Balkans, and reached the Danube. 
Never before had any Muslim ruler been able to inflict such 
a defeat upon Byzantium, which had behind it the prestige of 
the ancient Roman Empire. It was with pride, therefore, that 

96 . Karen Armstrong 

the Turks called their new state in Anatolia "Rum" or Rome. 
Despite the decline of the caliphate, Muslims had now ex- 
panded into two areas that had never before been part of the 
Dar al-Islam - eastern Europe and a portion of north-west 
India-and which would become highly creative regions in 
the near future. 

Caliph al-Nasir (1180-1225) tried to restore the caliphate in 
Baghdad and its environs. Seeing the power of the religious re- 
vival, he tried to draw upon Islam. Originally, the Shariah had 
been developed in protest against caliphal rule, but now al- 
Nasir studied to become an alim in all four of the Sunni law 
schools. He was also initiated into one of the futuwwab clubs, 
with the aim of making himself the Grand Master of all the 
futuwwabs in Baghdad. Afier al-Nasir's death, his successors 
continued these policies. But it was too late. The Islamic world 
was shortly engulfed in a catastrophe which would finally bring 
the Abbasid caliphate to a violent and tragic end. 

THE MONGOLS (1220-1500) 

In the Far East, the Mongol chiefiain Genghis Khan was 
building a world empire, and a clash with Islamdom was in- 
evitable. Unlike the Seljuks, he was able to control and disci- 
pline his nomadic hordes, and made them into a fighting 
machine with a destructive power that the world had never 
seen before. Any ruler who failed to submit immediately to 
the Mongol chiefiains could expect to see his major cities en- 
tirely laid waste and their populations massacred. The Mon- 
gols' ferocity was a deliberate technique but it also expressed 
the nomads' pent-up resentment of urban culture. When 
Muhammad, shah of the Khwarazmian Turks (1200-1220), 
attempted to build a Muslim caliphate of his own in Iran and 
the Oxus region, the Mongol general Hulegu regarded it as 
an act of insolent hubris. From 1219 to 1229 the Mongol 

Islam . 97 

armies pursued Muhammad and his son Jalal al-Din across 
Iran, through Azerbaijan and into Syria, leaving a trail of 
death and devastation behind them. In 1231, a new series of 
raids began. One great Muslim city after another was demol- 
ished. Bukhara was reduced to rubble, Baghdad fell after a 
single battle, and took the moribund caliphate with it: corpses 
filled the streets, and refugees fled to Syria, Egypt or India. 
The Ismailis of Alamut were massacred, and though the new 
Seljuk dynasty of Rum submitted to the Mongols at once, it 
never fully recovered. The first Muslim ruler who was able to 
stop the Mongols in their tracks was Baibars, the sultan of the 
new Egyptian state ruled by a Turkish slave corps. The Mam- 
luks (slaves) had dominated the army of the Ayyubid Empire 
founded by Saladin; in 1250 the Mamluk amirs had led a suc- 
cessful coup against the Ayyubid state, and founded their own 
empire in the Near East. In 1260 Baibars inflicted a defeat on 
the Mongol army at Ain Jalut in northern Palestine. Afier 
their sortie into India had been deflected by the new sultanate 
based in Delhi, the Mongols settled down to enjoy the fruits 
of victory, creating empires in the heartlands of Islamdom 
that owed allegiance to Kublai, the Mongol Khan in China. 

The Mongols created four large states. The descendants of 
Hulegu, who were known as 11-Khans (representatives of the 
Supreme Khan), at first refused to accept that their defeat was 
final, and destroyed Damascus before they eventually acqui- 
esced and retired to their empire in the Tigris-Euphrates 
valley and the mountainous regions of Iran. The Chaghatay 
Mongols established a state in the Syr-Oxus basin, while the 
White Horde was established in the Irtysh region, and the 
Golden Horde around the River Volga. It was the greatest 
political upheaval in the Middle East since the Arab invasions 
of the seventh century, but unlike the Arab Muslims the Mon- 
gols brought no spirituality with them. They were, however, 
tolerant of all religions, though they tended towards Buddhism. 

98 . Karen Armstrong 

Their law code, the Yasa, which was attributed to Genghis 
Khan himself, was a narrowly military system, which did not 
affect civilians. It was Mongol policy to build on local traditions 
once they had subjugated an area, and so by the end of the thir- 
teenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries all four of 
the Mongol empires had converted to Islam. 

The Mongols therefore became the chief Muslim power 
in the central Islamic heartlands. But whatever their official 
allegiance to Islam, the main ideology of their states was 
"Mongolism," which glorified the imperial and military 
might of the Mongols and dreamed of world conquest. The 
whole state was run on military lines. The monarch was the 
commander-in-chief, and was expected to lead his men him- 
self and not leave campaigns to his deputies. Hence there was, 
in the early days, no capital city. The capital was wherever the 
khan and his army happened to be encamped. The whole ap- 
paratus of the state was conducted like an army, and the ad- 
ministration accompanied the soldiers on the march. The 
whole intricate camp-culture was conducted with remarkable 
efficiency. There were two chief political objectives: world 
hegemony and the perpetuation of the ruling dynasty, which 
justified any cruelty. It was an ideology similar to the old ab- 
solutist polity, which had believed that the greater the ruler's 
power, the better the peace and security of the state. The de- 
crees of all the monarchs of a dynasty remained in force as 
long as the family was in power, marginalizing all other legal 
systems. All the top jobs in government were given to mem- 
bers of the family and their local clients and proteges, who 
were all drawn into the entourage of the great nomadic army 
at the core of the state. 

There could hardly be a greater contrast with the egalitar- 
ianism of Islam, but it was, in a sense, a continuation of the 
militarization of society that had occurred in the final years 
of the Abbasid caliphate, where the amirshad ruled from the 


The Mongol World 
(during the reign of Hulegu, 1255-65) 

Lanes 'aided or loosely controlled 
by the Mongols 

100 • Karen Armstrong _._._ 

garrisons, leaving the civilians and the ulama to their own Is- 
lamic devices. There had always been the possibility that the 
military might interfere more in civil affairs, if an amir had 
achieved anything resembling stability. To a degree, this hap- 
pened under the Mongol rulers, who were powerful enough 
to put new constraints on the ulama. The Shariah was no 
longer permitted to be a potentially subversive code. By the 
fifteenth century it was agreed that the ulama could no longer 
use their own independent judgement {ijtihad) in creative 
legislation; it was said that "the gates of ijtihad" were closed. 
Muslims were obliged to conform to the rulings of past au- 
thorities. The Shariah had in principle become a system of 
established rules, which could not jeopardize the more dy- 
namic dynastic law of the ruling house. 

The Mongol irruption into Muslim life had been trau- 
matic. Mongols had left a swathe of ruined cities and libraries 
behind them, as well as economic recession. But once they 
had achieved victory, the Mongols rebuilt on a magnificent 
scale the cities they had devastated. They also established 
brilliant courts, which promoted science, art, history and 
mysticism. Appalling as the Mongol scourge had been, the 
Mongol rulers were fascinating to their Muslim subjects. 
Their political structures remained subtly enduring and, as 
we shall see, influenced later Muslim empires. The Mongols' 
power had suggested new horizons. They had seemed about 
to conquer the world, and had been a portent of a new kind of 
imperialism, which linked the possibility of universal rule 
with mass destruction. The splendour of their states dazzled, 
at the same time as they undermined Muslim preconceptions. 
Muslims were not stunned into passivity by the horrors they 
had lived through, nor by the political defeat that these Mon- 
gol states represented. Islam is a resilient faith. Frequently in 
their history Muslims had responded positively to disaster, 
and used it constructively to gain fresh religious insights. So 

Islam . 101 

too after the Mongol invasions, when people clearly felt that 
the world as they had known it was coming to an end, but also 
that an entirely new global order was possible. 

This was clearly evident in the vision of the Sufi mystic 
Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-73), who was himself a victim of the 
Mongols but whose teachings expressed the sense of bound- 
less possibility that they had brought with them. Rumi had 
been born in Khurasan; his father was an alim and a Sufi mas- 
ter, and Rumi himself was learned in figh, theology and Ara- 
bic and Persian literature. But to escape the approaching 
Mongol hordes, the family was forced to flee. They came as 
refugees to Konya, the capital of the sultanate of Rum, in 
Anatolia. Rumi's spirituality is suffused by a sense of cosmic 
homelessness and separation from God, the divine source. 
The greatest misfortune that could befall any human being, 
Rumi insisted, was not to feel the pain of severance, which 
goads a man or woman to the religious quest. We must realize 
our inadequacy and that our sense of selfhood is illusory. Our 
ego veils the reality from us, and by divesting ourselves of 
egotism and selfishness we will find that God is all that re- 

Rumi was a "drunken Sufi." His spiritual and personal life 
veered from one emotional extreme to another; he sought ec- 
stasy in dancing, singing, poetry and music, and the members 
of the order that he founded are often called the Whirling 
Dervishes because of their stately, spinning dance, which in- 
duces a trance state of transcendence. Despite his obvious in- 
stability, Rumi was known in his lifetime as Mawlanah (our 
Lord) by his disciples, and his Mawlanah Order has had great 
influence in Turkey right up to the present day. The Math- 
nawi, his magnum opus, is known as the Sufi scripture. Where 
Ibn al-Arabi had written for the intellectual, Rumi was sum- 
moning all human beings to live beyond themselves, and to 
transcend the routines of daily life. The Mathnawi celebrated 

102 . Karen Armstrong 

the Sufi lifestyle which can make everyone an indomitable 
hero of a battle waged perpetually in the cosmos and within 
the soul. The Mongol invasions had led to a mystical move- 
ment, which helped people come to terms with the catastro- 
phe they had experienced at the deeper levels of the psyche, 
and Rumi was its greatest luminary and exemplar. The new 
Sufi tariqahs founded at this time stressed the unlimited po- 
tential of human life. Sufis could experience on the spiritual 
plane what the Mongols had so nearly achieved in terrestrial 

Others responded to the upheavals of the period very dif- 
ferently. The destruction of the invasions, when so much had 
been lost, led to an intensification of the conservatism that al- 
ways characterized agrarian society. When resources were 
limited, it was impossible to encourage inventiveness and 
originality in the way that we do today in the modern West, 
where we expect to know more than our parents' generation 
and that our children will experience still greater advance. 
No society before our own could afford the constant retrain- 
ing of personnel and replacement of the infrastructure that 
innovation on this scale demands. Consequently, in all pre- 
modern societies, including that of agrarian Europe, educa- 
tion was designed to preserve what had already been achieved 
and to put a brake on the ingenuity and curiosity of the indi- 
vidual, which could undermine the stability of a community 
that had no means of integrating or exploiting fresh insights. 
In the madrasahs, for example, pupils learned old texts and 
commentaries by heart, and the teaching consisted of a word- 
by-word explication of a standard textbook. Public disputa- 
tions between scholars took for granted that one of the 
debaters was right and the other wrong. There was no idea, in 
the question-and-answer style of study, of allowing the clash 
of two opposing positions to build a new synthesis. Thus the 
madrasahs promoted an acceptance of those notions that 

Islam • 103 

could unite Muslims throughout the world, and stamped 
down on heterodox ideas that would cause dissension and 
tempt people to leave the straight path and go their own way. 

By the fourteenth century, the study and observance of the 
Shariah was the only type of piety to be accepted by all Mus- 
lims, Sunni and Shii, Sufi and Faylasuf alike. By this time, the 
ulama liked to believe that these laws had been in place from 
the very beginning of Islamic history. Thus while some Sufis, 
such as Rumi, were beginning to glimpse new horizons, many 
of the ulama believed that nothing ever changed. Hence they 
were content that the "gates of ijtihad" were closed. After the 
loss of so much of the learning of the past, the destruction of 
manuscripts and the slaughter of scholars, it was more impor- 
tant to recover what had been lost than to inaugurate more 
change. Because the Mongol military code made no provision 
for civil society, the ulama continued to govern the lives of the 
faithful, and their influence tended to be conservative. Where 
Sufis such as Rumi believed that all religions were valid, by 
the fourteenth century the ulama had transformed the plural- 
ism of the Quran into a hard communalism, which saw other 
traditions as irrelevant relics of the past. Non-Muslims were 
forbidden now to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, 
and it became a capital offence to make insulting remarks 
about the Prophet Muhammad. The trauma of the invasions 
had, not surprisingly, made Muslims feel insecure. Foreigners 
were not only suspect; they could be as lethal as the Mongols. 

But there were ulama who refused to accept the closing of 
the "gates of ijtihad". Throughout Islamic history, at times of 
great political crisis-especially during a period of foreign 
encroachment-a reformer (mujdadid) would often renew the 
faith so that it could meet the new conditions. These reforms 
usually followed a similar pattern. They were conservative, 
since they attempted to go back to basics rather than create an 
entirely new solution. But in this desire to return to the pris- 

104 . Karen Armstrong 

tine Islam of the Quran and sunnah, the reformers were often 
iconoclastic in sweeping away later medieval developments 
that had come to be considered sacred. They were also suspi- 
cious of foreign influence, and alien accretions, which had 
corrupted what they saw as the purity of the faith. This type 
of reformer would become a feature of Muslim society. Many 
of the people who are called "Muslim fundamentalists " in our 
own day correspond exactly to the old pattern set by the muj- 

In the post-Mongol world, the great reformer of the day 
was Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), an alim of Damas- 
cus, which had suffered so terribly at the hands of the Mon- 
gols. Ibn Taymiyyah came from an old family of ulama who 
belonged to the Hanbali madhhab, and wanted to reinforce the 
values of the Shariah. He declared that even though the 
Mongols had converted to Islam, they were in fact infidels 
and apostates, because they had promulgated the Yasa instead 
of the Shariah. Like a true reformer, he attacked Islamic de- 
velopments that had occurred after the Prophet and the 
rashidun as inauthentic: Shiism, Sufism and Falsafah. But he 
also had a positive programme. In these changed times, the 
Shariah had to be brought up to date to fit the actual circum- 
stances of Muslims, even if this meant getting rid of much of 
the fiqh that had developed over the centuries. It was essential, 
therefore, that jurists use ijtihad to find a legal solution that 
was true to the spirit of the Shariah, even if it infringed the 
letter of the law as this had been understood in recent times. 
Ibn Taymiyyah was a worrying figure to the establishment. 
His return to the fundamentals of the Quran and sunnah and 
his denial of much of the rich spirituality and philosophy of 
Islam may have been reactionary, but it was also revolution- 
ary. He outraged the conservative ulama, who clung to the 
textbook answers, and criticized the Mamluk government of 
Syria for practices which contravened Islamic law as he un- 

Islam . 105 

derstood it. Ibn Taymiyyah was imprisoned, and was said to 
have died of sorrow, since his gaolers would not permit him 
to write. But the ordinary people of Damascus loved him, be- 
cause they could see that his Shariah reforms had been lib- 
eral, and that he had had their interests at heart. His funeral 
became a massive demonstration of popular acclaim. 

Change could be exciting but it was also disturbing. In 
Tunis, Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun (1 332-1406) watched one 
dynasty after another fail in the Maghrib, the western region 
of the Islamic world. Plague destroyed whole communities. 
Nomadic tribes had migrated from Egypt into North Africa, 
causing massive devastation and a corresponding decline in 
traditional Berber society. Ibn Khaldun had himself emigrated 
to Tunisia from Spain, where the Christians had conducted a 
successful reconquista of Muslim territory, taking Cordova in 
1236 and Seville in 1248. All that was left of the thriving Mus- 
lim kingdom of al-Andalus was the city-state of Granada, 
which would be defeated by the Christians in 1492, but not be- 
fore building the magnificent Alhambra palace there in the 
mid fourteenth century. Islam was clearly in crisis. "When 
there is an entire alteration of conditions," Ibn Khaldun re- 
flected, "it is as if the whole creation had changed and all the 
world had been transformed, as if there were a new creation, a 
rebirth, a world brought into existence anew." 3 

Ibn Khaldun wanted to discover the underlying causes of 
this change. He was probably the last great Spanish Faylasuf; 
his great innovation was to apply the principles of philo- 
sophic rationalism to the study of history, hitherto considered 
to be beneath the notice of a philosopher, because it dealt 
only with transient, fleeting events instead of eternal truths. 
But Ibn Khaldun believed that, beneath the flux of historical 
incidents, universal laws governed the fortunes of society. He 
decided that it was a strong sense of group solidarity {asi- 
biyyah) that enabled a people to survive and, if conditions 

106 . Karen Armstrong 

were right, to subjugate others. This conquest meant that the 
dominant group could absorb the resources of the subject 
peoples, develop a culture and a complex urban life. But as 
the ruling class became accustomed to a luxurious lifestyle, 
complacency set in and they began to lose their vigour. They 
no longer took sufficient heed of their subjects, there was jeal- 
ousy and infighting and the economy would begin to decline. 
Thus the state became vulnerable to a new tribal or nomadic 
group, which was in the first flush of its own asibiyyah, and the 
whole cycle began again. Ibn Khaldun's masterpiece Al- 
Maqaddimah: An Introduction to History applied this theory to 
the history of Islam, and would be read closely by Muslim 
empire builders in coming years, as well as by Western histo- 
rians in the nineteenth century, who saw Ibn Khaldun as a pi- 
oneer of their scientific study of history. 

Ibn Khaldun was able to watch the decline of the Mongol 
states during the second half of the fourteenth century, which 
clearly confirmed his theory. Their original asibiyyah had 
peaked, complacency had set in, and the stage was now set for 
other dominant groups to take control. It seemed likely that 
the new leaders would come not from the Islamic heartlands, 
but from the fringes of the Muslim world, which had not been 
subject to Mongol rule. By this time, the Mamluk Empire in 
Egypt and Syria had also started its decline. At its height, the 
Mamluks had created a vibrant society, with a strong esprit de 
corps, and a flourishing culture. But by the fifteenth century 
the empire had outrun its resources, and, like any agrarian 
state, had begun to fall apart. 

The ruler who most fully expressed the spirit of the age 
was a Turk from the Syr Valley, who had grown up in the 
Mongol Chaghaytay state in Samarkand, and was passionate 
about the Mongol ideal. Timur (1336-1405), known as 
Timur Lenk (Timur the Lame) because of a pronounced 
limp, and Tamburlaine in the West, seized power in the de- 

Islam ' 101 

clining Chaghaytay Empire, claimed Mongol descent, and 
began to reconquer the old Mongol territory with the sav- 
agery that had characterized the original invasions. Timur 
combined his thirst for achievement and love of destruction 
with a passion for Islam, and because he so perfectly en- 
shrined the enthusiasms of his day, he became a folk hero. He 
erected magnificent buildings in Samarkand, where he 
presided over a splendid court. His version of Islam-big- 
oted, cruel and violent-bore little relation to the conserva- 
tive piety of the ulama or the Sufi doctrine of love. He saw 
himself as the scourge of Allah, sent to punish the Muslim 
amirs for their unjust practices. His chief concern was to es- 
tablish order and punish corruption, and even though his sub- 
jects feared Timur' s brutality, they appreciated his strong 
government after the disintegration of recent years. Like the 
Mongols before him, Timur seemed unstoppable, and for a 
time it looked as though he would achieve world conquest. By 
1387 he had subjugated all the Iranian highlands and the 
plains of Mesopotamia. In 1395 he conquered the old Golden 
Horde in Russia, and in 1398 he descended upon India, where 
he massacred thousands of Hindu prisoners and devastated 
Delhi. Two years later he had conquered Anatolia, sacked 
Damascus and perpetrated a massacre in Baghdad. Finally, in 
1404, he set off for China, where he was killed the following 

No one was able to keep Timur's empire intact. World 
conquest was clearly still an impossible dream, but the dis- 
covery of gunpowder weapons during the fifteenth century 
would enable new Muslim rulers to establish substantial but 
more manageable empires in the late fifteenth and early six- 
teenth centuries, which also attempted to wed the Mongol 
idea with Islam. These new empires would take root in India, 
Azerbaijan and Anatolia. 

The Sultanate of Delhi had been established during the 

108 . Karen Armstrong 

thirteenth century, and by the early fourteenth century Islam 
was soundly established in the Ganges basin as far as Bengal. 
In the mountainous regions, a few Hindu Rajputs, the Indian 
ruling class, held aloof, but most Hindus accepted Muslim 
supremacy. This was not as surprising as it might appear. The 
caste system confined the exercise of political authority to a 
limited number of families, and when these had been ex- 
hausted, Hindus were willing to accept anybody in their 
place, provided that they did not infringe the caste regula- 
tions. As outsiders, Muslims were not bound by these stric- 
tures, and they had the strength of a powerful international 
society behind them. Muslims remained a minority in India. 
Some lower castes and trades, including some of the "un- 
touchables," converted to Islam, often as a result of the 
preaching of Sufi pirs. But the majority retained their Hindu, 
Buddhist or Jain allegiance. It is not true, as often averred, 
that Muslims destroyed Buddhism in India. There is evidence 
for only one attack on one monastery, and no concrete data to 
support widespread slaughter. By 1330 the greater part of the 
subcontinent acknowledged the authority of the Sultanate of 
Delhi, but unwise government on the part of the sultans led to 
rebellions among the Muslim amirs, and it became evident 
that the sultanate was too big for one person to govern. In the 
usual way, the central power disintegrated and the amirs ruled 
their own states, with the help of the ulama. Until the advent 
of gunpowder, the Delhi sultanate remained one power 
among many in Muslim India. 

On the fringes of the Mongol states, the ghazi warriors had 
been left to run their own amirates, acknowledging the Mon- 
gol rulers as their overlords. These ghazi states were usually 
religious with a strong tendency towards Sufism. In Azerbai- 
jan and Anatolia, tariqahs were formed which adapted some of 
the wilder forms of Sufism to the revolutionary ethos of the 
old Shiah. They revived the ghulwww "extremist" theology 

Islam • 109 

that had inspired the very early Shiis, revering Ali as an in- 
carnation of the divine, believing that their dead amirs had 
gone into "occultation," and often revering their leader as the 
Mahdi, who had returned to inaugurate a new age of justice. 
The Bekhtashi dervishes in Anatolia had a broad popular fol- 
lowing, and preached the imminent advent of a new order 
that would sweep away the old religious norms. Similarly 
iconoclastic was the Safaviyyah order in Azerbaijan, which 
began as a Sunni tariqah but which by the fifteenth century 
had been attracted by the gbuluww ideas, and who called 
themselves Twelver Shiis. They believed that their leader was 
a descendant of the Seventh Imam, and was thus the only le- 
gitimate leader of the Muslim ummah. By the early sixteenth 
century, Ismail, the pir of the Order, who may also have be- 
lieved himself to be a reincarnation of the Hidden Imam, 
would found a Shii empire in Iran. 

When the Mongol states collapsed, the whole of Anatolia 
was divided into small independent ghazi states, which, since 
the late thirteenth century, had started to wrest towns and vil- 
lages from the declining Byzantine Empire. One of the small- 
est of these states was ruled by the Osmanli family, which 
became increasingly powerful during the early years of the 
fourteenth century. In 1326 the Osmanlis or Ottomans had 
conquered Bursa, which became their capital; in 1329 they 
had seized Iznik, and by 1372 they had seized the greater part 
of the territory of Byzantium. They established anew capital 
at Edirne (Adrianople), and reduced the Byzantine emperor 
to a dependent ally. The secret of Ottoman success was the 
discipline of its trained infantry, known as the "new troop" 
(yeni-ciim or Janissary), a slave corps. Murad I (1 360-89) had 
become the most powerful of the western Muslim rulers, and 
by 1372 was ready to advance into the Balkans, attacking the 
independent kingdoms of Bulgar and Serbia, the most impor- 
tant power in the Balkan peninsula. In 1389 the Ottomans de- 

110 . Karen Armstrong 

feated the Serbian army at Kosovo Field in central Serbia. 
Murad was killed, but the Serbian Prince Hrelbeljanovic 
Lazar was captured and executed. It marked the end of Ser- 
bian independence and, to this day, Serbians revere Prince 
Lazar as a martyr and national hero, and have nurtured a pro- 
found hatred of Islam. But the Ottoman advance continued, 
and was by no means unpopular with the majority of Byzan- 
tine subjects. The old empire had been in disarray; the Ot- 
tomans brought order and a revived economy, and many of 
the populace were attracted to Islam. The Ottomans suffered 
a major setback in 1402, when Timur defeated their army at 
Angora, but they were able to reconsolidate their power after 
Timur's death, and in 1453 Mehmed II (1451-81) was able to 
conquer Constantinople itself, using the new gunpowder 

For centuries, the Byzantine Empire, which the Muslims 
had called "Rum" (Rome), had held Islam at bay. One caliph 
after another had been forced to concede defeat. Now 
Mehmed "the Conqueror" had fulfilled the old dream. The 
Muslims were on the brink of a new age. They had survived 
the Mongol trauma and found a new strength. By the end of 
the fifteenth century Islamdom was the greatest power bloc 
in the world. It had advanced into eastern Europe, into the 
Eurasian steppes, and into sub-Saharan Africa in the wake of 
Muslim traders. In the thirteenth century Muslim merchants 
had also established themselves along the coast of the south- 
ern seas in East Africa, southern Arabia, and the western 
coast of the Indian subcontinent. Muslim merchants, every 
one a missionary for the faith, had settled in Malaya at a time 
when Buddhist trade had collapsed there, and soon enjoyed 
immense prestige. Sufi preachers followed the businessmen, 
and by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Malaya was 
predominantly Muslim. The whole world seemed to be be- 
coming Islamic: even those who did not live under Muslim 

Islam .111 

rule discovered that the Muslims controlled the high seas, 
and that when they left their own lands they had to confront 
Islamdom. Even when the European navigators made their 
astonishing discoveries in the late fifteenth and early six- 
teenth centuries, they could not dislodge the Muslims from 
the seaways. Islam seemed invincible, and now Muslims were 
ready to establish new empires, which would become the 
most powerful and up-to-date in the world. 


IMPERIAL ISLAM (1500.1700) 

The discovery and exploitation of gunpowder led to the de- 
velopment of a military technology that gave rulers more 
power over their subjects than before. They could control 
greater areas more effectively, provided that they also devel- 
oped an efficient, rationalized administration. The military 
state, which had been a feature of Islamic politics since the 
decline of Abbasid power, could now come into its own. In 
Europe also, monarchs were beginning to build large central- 
ized states and absolute monarchies, with a more streamlined 
government machinery. Three major Islamic empires were 
created in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: the 
Safavid Empire in Iran, the Moghul Empire in India and the 
Ottoman Empire in Anatolia, Syria, North Africa and Arabia. 
Other impressive polities also appeared. A large Muslim state 
was formed in Uzbekhistan in the Syr-Oxus basin; another 
state with Shii tendencies was established in Morocco, and 
even though Muslims were at this time in competition with 
Chinese, Japanese, Hindu and Buddhist traders for the con- 
trol of the Malayan archipelago, the Muslims came out on top 
in the sixteenth century. 

It was, therefore, a period of triumph. The three major em- 
pires all seemed to turn their backs on the egalitarian tradi- 
tions of Islam, and set up absolute monarchies, however. 
Almost every facet of public life was run with systematic and 
bureaucratic precision and the empires developed a sophisti- 
cated administration. They were all influenced by the Mon- 
gol idea of the army state, but involved civilians in their 
imperial policies, so that the dynasties won more grass-roots 
support. But these empires were very different from the old 

116 . Karen Armstrong 

Abbasid state in one important respect. The Abbasid caliphs 
and their court had never been truly Islamic institutions; they 
had not been subject to the laws of the Shariah and had 
evolved their own worldly ethos. The new empires, however, 
all had a strongly Islamic orientation, promoted by the rulers 
themselves. In Safavid Iran, Shiism became the state religion; 
Falsafah and Sufism were dominant influences on Moghul 
policy; while the Ottoman Empire was run entirely on 
Shariah lines. 

But the old problems remained. However pious an abso- 
lute monarch might seem to be, such autocracy was funda- 
mentally opposed to the spirit of the Quran. Most of the 
people still lived in poverty, and suffered the injustices that 
were endemic to agrarian society. There were also new diffi- 
culties. Moghul India and Anatolia, the heartland of the Ot- 
toman Empire, were both places where Muslims were relative 
newcomers. Both would have to learn to relate to their non- 
Muslim subjects, who formed the majority of the population. 
The establishment of a Shii Empire caused a new and deci- 
sive rift between Sunnis and Shiis, leading to an intolerance 
and an aggressive sectarianism that was unprecedented in the 
Islamic world but which was similar to the bitter conflict be- 
tween Catholics and Protestants that erupted at the same 
time in Europe. There was also the challenge of Europe itself, 
which had hitherto been a backward region and of little in- 
terest to Muslims. Europe, however, was just beginning to 
evolve an entirely new kind of civilization, free of the con- 
straints of agrarian society, which would eventually enable 
the West not only to overtake but to subjugate the Islamic 
world. The new Europe was beginning to flex its muscles, but 
in the sixteenth century it was still no real threat. When the 
Russians invaded Muslim Kazan and Astrakhan (1552-56), 
and imposed Christianity there, Muslims profited from this 
defeat by opening new lines of trade with northern Europe. 
The Iberian navigators who had discovered the Americas in 

Islam • 117 

1492 and opened new sea routes around the globe had given 
Portuguese merchants added mobility. In the second half of 
the sixteenth century they tried to ruin Muslim trade in the 
South Seas by conducting a neo-Crusade in the Red Sea. 
These exploits of the Portuguese were of great importance to 
the West, but made little impact on the Islamic world. Mus- 
lims were far more interested in the establishment of a Shii 
Empire in Iran; the spectacular successes of the early Safavids 
were a severe blow to Sunni expectations. For the first time in 
centuries, a stable, powerful and enduring Shii state had been 
planted right in the heart of Islamdom. 


The Safavid Sufi order in Azerbaijan, which had converted to 
Twelver Shiism, had for some time been conducting ghazu 
raids against the Christians of Georgia and the Caucasus, but 
it had also incurred the wrath of the amirs of Mesopotamia 
and western Iran. In 1500, sixteen-year-old Ismail succeeded 
to the pir-ship of the order and set out to avenge his father, 
who had died at the hands of the amirs. In 1501 Ismail con- 
quered Tabriz in the course of his campaign, and then went 
on to subjugate the rest of Iran during the next decade. He 
declared that Twelver Shiism would be the official religion of 
his new empire. 

This was a startling development. Until this date, most 
Shiis had been Arabs. There were Shii centres in Iran, in 
Rayy, Kashan and Khurasan, as well as the old garrison town 
of Qum, but most Iranians were Sunnis. Ismail therefore set 
about eliminating Sunnism in Iran: the Sufi tariqahswere sup- 
pressed, and the ulama either executed or deported. Members 
of the administration were required to curse the first three 
rashidun, who had "usurped" power that should by rights have 
been given to Ali. No Shii rulers had ever attempted anything 
on this scale before; modern weaponry was giving the reli- 

118. Karen Armstrong 

gious establishment a new coercive power. During the last 
two hundred years there had been a detente between Shiis 
and Sunnis. For centuries, Twelver Shiism had been an eso- 
teric, mystical sect, which had withdrawn from politics, be- 
lieving that no government could be legitimate in the absence 
of the Hidden Imam. How could there be a "state Shiism"? 
Shah Ismail was not moved by this reasoning. He probably 
knew very little about Twelver orthodoxy, since he sub- 
scribed to the folk extremist ghuluww Shiism of the new 
tariqahs, which believed that the messianic Utopia was at hand. 
He may even have told his followers that he was the Hidden 
Imam, and had returned to fight the battles of the Last Days. 
His jihad against Sunni Islam did not end in Iran. In 15 10 he 
ousted the Sunni Uzbeks from Khurasan and pushed them 
north of the Oxus; he also attacked the Sunni Ottomans, but 
was defeated by Sultan Selim I at the Battle of Chaldiran in 
1514. His attempt to quash the Sunnis outside his domains 
failed, but Ismail's offensive within Iran was successful. By the 
late seventeenth century most Iranians were solidly Shii, and 
have remained so to the present day. 

Shah Ismail established a military state, but relied heavily 
on the civilians, who ran the administration. Like the old 
Sassanid and Abbasid monarchs, the shah was called the 
"Shadow of God on earth," but Safavid legitimacy was based 
on Ismail's claim to be a descendant of the imams. It did not 
take the Safavids long, however, to realize that their extremist 
ideology, which had fired their revolutionary zeal in opposi- 
tion, would not serve them well once they had become the es- 
tablishment. Shah Abbas I (1588-1629) rid his bureaucracy of 
those who held ghuluww views, imported Arab Shii ulama 
from abroad to teach the people a more orthodox form of 
Twelver Shiism, built madrasahs for them and gave them gen- 
erous financial support. Under Abbas, the empire reached its 
zenith. He achieved important territorial victories against the 

The Safavid Empire (1500-1722) | 

1 Core lerrito'y of ESjSSaftMd lann contested 

the Safsvid'i oy the U?bftks cjgrihg 

iafavid land conquered # sixteenth century < 

by !he Ottomans in the 
sixteenth century S^ GEORGIA 


120 . Karen Armstrong 

Ottomans, and his capital at Isfahan enjoyed a cultural 
renaissance, which, like the recent Italian renaissance in 
Europe, drew inspiration from the pagan past of the region; 
in the case of Iran, this meant the old pre-Islamic Persian 
culture. This was the period of such great Safavid painters as 
Bihzad (d. 1535) and Riza-i Abbari (d. 1635), who produced 
luminous and dreamlike miniatures. Isfahan became a mag- 
nificent city of parks, palaces and huge open squares, with 
imposing mosques and madrasahs. 

The new ulama immigrants were in a strange position, 
however. As a private group, they had never had their own 
Shii madrasahs before but had met for study and discussion in 
one another's homes. They had always, on principle, held 
aloof from government, but now they were required to take 
over the educational and legal system of Iran, as well as the 
more religious tasks of the government. The shah gave them 
generous gifts and grants that eventually made them finan- 
cially independent. They felt that they could not refuse this 
unique opportunity of propagating their faith, but were still 
wary of the state, refusing official government posts and pre- 
ferring to be ranked as subjects. Their position was potentially 
very powerful. According to Twelver orthodoxy, the ulama 
and not the shahs were the only legitimate representatives of 
the Hidden Imam. But as yet, the Safavids were able to keep 
the ulama in line; they would not be able to exploit their posi- 
tion fully until the Iranian people as a whole had converted to 
the Shiah. But their new power meant that some of the more 
attractive traits of Twelver Shiism became submerged. In- 
stead of pursuing their profound mystical exegesis, some of 
them became rather literal-minded. Muhammad Baqir Maj- 
lisi (d. 1700) became one of the most influential ulama of all 
time, but he displayed anew Shii bigotry. He tried to suppress 
the teaching of Falsafah and mysticism (irfan) in Isfahan, and 
mercilessly persecuted the remaining Sufis. Henceforth, he 

Islam . 121 

was able to insist, the ulama should concentrate onfiqh. Majlisi 
introduced into Iranian Shiism a distrust of mysticism and 
philosophy that is still prevalent today. 

To replace the old Sufi devotions, such as the communal 
dhikr and the cult of Sufi saints, Majlisi promoted the mourn- 
ing rituals in honour of Husain, the martyr of Kerbala, to 
teach the populace the values and piety of the Shiah. There 
were elaborate processions, and highly emotional dirges were 
sung, while the people wailed and cried aloud. These rites 
became a major Iranian institution. During the eighteenth 
century the taziyeh, a passion play depicting the Kerbala 
tragedy, was developed, in which the people were not passive 
spectators, but provided the emotional response, weeping and 
beating their breasts, and joining their own sorrows to the suf- 
fering of Imam Husain. The rituals provided an important 
safety valve. As they moaned, slapped their foreheads and 
wept uncontrollably, the audience aroused in themselves that 
yearning for justice which is at the heart of Shii piety, asking 
themselves why the good always seemed to suffer and evil 
nearly always prevailed. But Majlisi and the shahs were careful 
to suppress the revolutionary potential of these rites. Instead 
of protesting against tyranny at home, the people were 
taught to inveigh against Sunni Islam. Instead of vowing to 
follow Husain in the struggle against injustice, the people 
were told to see him as a patron, who could secure their ad- 
mission to paradise. The rite was thus neutralized and made 
to serve the status quo, and urged the populace to curry 
favour with the powerful and look only to their own inter- 
ests. It was not until the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 that 
the cult would once again become a means for the oppressed 
to articulate their grievances against corrupt government. 

But some of the ulama remained true to the older Shii tra- 
ditions, and their ideas would inspire reformers and revolu- 
tionaries right up to the present day, not just in Iran but 

122 . Karen Armstrong 

throughout the Muslim world. Mir Dimad (d. 1631) and his 
pupil Mulla Sadra (d. 1640) founded a school of mystical phi- 
losophy at Isfahan, which Majlisi did his best to suppress. 
They continued the tradition of Suhrawardi, linking philoso- 
phy and spirituality, and training their disciples in mystical 
disciplines which enabled them to acquire a sense of the alam 
al-mithal and the spiritual world. Both insisted that a philoso- 
pher must be as rational and scientific as Aristotle, but that he 
must also cultivate the imaginative, intuitive approach to 
truth. Both were utterly opposed to the new intolerance of 
some of the ulama, which they regarded as a perversion of re- 
ligion. Truth could not be imposed by force and intellectual 
conformism was incompatible with true faith. Mulla Sadra 
also saw political reform as inseparable from spirituality. In 
his masterpiece Al-Afsan al-Arbaah (The Fourfold Journey), he 
described the mystical training that a leader must undergo 
before he could start to transform the mundane world. He 
must first divest himself of ego, and receive divine illumina- 
tion and mystical apprehension of God. It was a path that 
could bring him to the same kind of spiritual insight as the 
Shii imams, though not, of course, on the same level as they. 
Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-89) was profoundly influenced by 
the teachings of Mulla Sadra, and in his last address to the Ira- 
nian people before his death he begged them to continue the 
study and practice of irfan, since there could be no truly Is- 
lamic revolution unless there was also a spiritual reformation. 
Mulla Sadra was deeply disturbed by a wholly new idea 
that was gradually gaining ground among the ulama of Iran, 
and which would also have fateful political consequences in 
our own day. A group who called themselves Usulis believed 
that ordinary Muslims were incapable of interpreting the 
basic principles (usul) of the faith for themselves. They 
should, therefore, seek out one of the learned ulama and fol- 
low his legal rulings, since they alone had the authority of the 

Islam • 123 

Hidden Imam. The Shii ulama had never agreed to close "the 
gates of ijtihad" like the Sunnis. Indeed, they called a leading 
jurist a mujtahid, one who had earned the right to exercise "in- 
dependent reasoning" when formulating Islamic legislation. 
The Usulis taught that even the shah should obey the fatwah 
of the mujtahid whom he had chosen for his mentor, since he 
needed his legal expertise. During the seventeenth century 
the Usulis did not win widespread support, but by the end of 
the century, when it was clear that the Safavid Empire was in 
decline, their position became popular. It had become crucial 
to establish a strong legal authority that could compensate for 
the weakness of the state. 

By this time, the empire had succumbed to the fate of any 
agrarian economy, and could no longer keep pace with its re- 
sponsibilities. Trade had deteriorated, there was economic 
insecurity and the later shahs were incompetent. When 
Afghan tribes attacked Isfahan in 1722, the city surrendered 
ignominiously. One of the Safavid princes escaped the mas- 
sacre, and with the help of the brilliant but ruthless comman- 
der Nadir Khan, managed to drive out the invaders. For over 
twenty years Nadir Khan, who got rid of his Safavid col- 
league and made himself shah, pulled Iran together and 
achieved notable military victories. But he was a cruel, brutal 
man and was assassinated in 1748. During this period, two 
crucial developments gave the ulama of Iran a power unparal- 
leled anywhere else in the Muslim world. First, when Nadir 
Khan had tried, unsuccessfully, to re-establish Sunni Islam in 
Iran, the leading ulama had left the empire and taken up resi- 
dence in the holy Shii cities of Najaf and Kerbala (dedicated 
respectively to Ah and Husain). This seemed a disaster at 
first, but in Najaf and Kerbala, which were in Ottoman Iraq, 
they had a base from which they could instruct the people 
which was out of reach of the temporal rulers of Iran. Second, 
during the dark interregnum that followed Nadir Khan's 

124 . Karen Armstrong 

death, when there was no central authority in Iran until Aqa 
Muhammad of the Turcoman Qajar tribe managed to seize 
control in 1779 and founded the Qajar dynasty, the ulama 
stepped into the power vacuum. The Usuli position became 
mandatory, and events would show that the ulama could com- 
mand the devotion and obedience of the Iranian people far 
more effectively than any shah. 


The turmoil occasioned by Shah Ismail's Shii jihad against 
Sunni Islam was, in part, responsible for the establishment of 
the new Muslim Empire in India. Its founder, Babur (d. 1530), 
had been an ally of Ismail, and had fled as a refugee to Kabul 
in the Afghan mountains during the war between the Safavids 
and the Uzbeks, where he had seized control of the remnants 
of the state established there by Timur Lenk. Thence he 
managed briefly to establish a power base in north India, 
which he intended to run on the Mongol lines favoured by 
Timur. His state did not last, and there was factional strife 
among the Afghan amirs until 1555, when Humayun, the 
ablest of Babur' s descendants, secured the throne and, though 
he died almost immediately, a dependable regent held the 
"Mongol" (or "Moghul") power intact until Humayun's son 
Akbar (1542-1605) attained his majority in 1560. Akbar was 
able to establish an integrated state in north India, where he 
was acknowledged as the undisputed ruler. He retained the 
old Mongol habit of running the central government as an 
army under the direct command of the sultan. He set up an 
efficient bureaucracy and, with the aid of his firearms, the 
Moghul Empire began to expand at the expense of the other 
Muslim rulers, until he controlled Hindustan, the Punjab, 
Malva and the Deccan. 

Unlike Ismail, however, Akbar did not oppress or perse- 
cute his subjects, nor did he attempt to convert them to his 

Islam • 125 

own faith. Had he done so, his empire would not have sur- 
vived. The Muslims were a small ruling minority in a coun- 
try that had never attempted to impose religious conformity. 
Each Hindu caste had its own religious practices, and Bud- 
dhists, Jacobites, Jews, Jains, Christians, Zoroastrians, Sunni 
Muslims and Ismailis had all been allowed to worship with- 
out hindrance. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, 
Hindus of all castes and even a few Muslims had joined 
forces in establishing a spiritualized, contemplative form of 
monotheism, which forswore sectarian intolerance. The Sikh 
religion, founded by Guru Nanak (d. 1469), had grown from 
these circles, insisting on the unity and compatibility of Hin- 
duism and Islam. There was, however, always a possibility 
of aggressive confrontation. Universalism was firmly estab- 
lished in India, and an intolerant polity would run against 
the grain of Indie culture. Muslim rulers had long been 
aware of this and had employed Hindus in their armies and 
administration. Akbar accentuated this tradition. He abol- 
ished the jizyah tax that the Shariah prescribed for dhimmis, 
became a vegetarian, so as not to offend Hindu sensibilities, 
and gave up hunting (a sport he greatly enjoyed). Akbar was 
respectful of all faiths. He built temples for Hindus, and in 
1575 set up a "house of worship" where scholars of all reli- 
gions could meet for discussion. He also founded his own 
Sufi order, dedicated to "divine monotheism" (tawhid-e ilaht), 
based on the Quranic belief that the one God could reveal 
himself in any rightly guided religion. 

Even though it was certainly true to the spirit of the 
Quran, Akbar's pluralism was very different from the hardline 
communalism that had been developing in some Shariah cir- 
cles, and it was light years from the bigotry of the recent 
Sunni/Shii conflict. But any other policy would have been 
politically disastrous in India. Akbar had courted the ulama at 
the beginning of his reign, but he was never very interested in 
the Shariah. His own bent was towards Sufism and Falsafah, 

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Islam • 121 

both of which inclined towards a universalist vision. Akbar 
wanted to build the model society that the Faylasufs had de- 
scribed. His biographer, the Sufi historian Abdulfazl Allami 
(1551-1602), saw Akbar as the ideal philosopher-king. He 
also believed that he was the Perfect Man, whom Sufis 
thought to exist in each generation to give divine guidance to 
the ummah. Akbar was establishing a civilization, which, Al- 
lami argued, would help people to cultivate a spirit of such 
generosity that conflict would become impossible. It was a 
polity that expressed the Sufi ideal of sulh-e kull ("universal 
peace"), which was merely a prelude to mahahhat-e hull, the 
"universal love" which would positively seek the material and 
spiritual welfare of all human beings. From this perspective, 
bigotry was non-sense; the ideal Faylasuf king, such as Akbar, 
was above the parochial prejudice of narrow sectarianism. 

Some Muslims, however, were offended by Akbar's reli- 
gious pluralism. Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1625), who was also a 
Sufi, felt that this universalism (which he laid at the door of 
Ibn al-Arabi) was dangerous. Sirhindi proclaimed that he 
himself rather than Akbar was the Perfect Man of the age. 
Unity with God could only be achieved when Muslims pi- 
ously observed the laws of the Shariah, which by this time was 
becoming more sectarian in its outlook. In the early part of 
the seventeenth century, however, few Muslims in India sub- 
scribed to Sirhindi's views. Shah Jihan, Akbar's grandson, who 
reigned from 1627 to 1658, kept in the main to Akbar's poli- 
cies. His Taj Mahal continued his grandfather's tradition of 
blending Muslim with Hindu styles of architecture. At his 
court, he patronized Hindu poets and Muslim scientific 
works were translated into Sanskrit. But Shah Jihan tended to 
be hostile to Sufism and his piety was based more strictly on 
the Shariah than Akbar's had been. 

He proved to be a transitional figure. By the end of the 
century, it was clear that the Moghul Empire had begun its 

128 . Karen Armstrong 

decline. The army and the court had both become too ex- 
pensive, the emperors still invested in cultural activities, but 
neglected agriculture, on which their wealth depended. The 
economic crisis came to a head during the reign of Au- 
rengzebe (1658-1707), who believed that the answer lay in 
greater discipline in Muslim society. His insecurity was ex- 
pressed in murderous hatred of Muslim "heretics" as well as 
adherents of other faiths. He was supported in his sectarian 
policies by those Muslims who, like Sirhindi, had been un- 
happy with the old pluralism. Shii celebrations in honour of 
Husain were suppressed in India, wine was prohibited by 
law (which made socializing with Hindus difficult) and the 
number of Hindu festivals attended by the emperor was 
drastically reduced. The jizyab was reimposed, and the taxes 
of Hindu merchants were doubled. Worst of all, Hindu tem- 
ples were destroyed all over the empire. The response 
showed how wise the previous tolerance had been. There 
were serious revolts, led by Hindu chieftains and Sikhs, who 
started to campaign for a state of their own in the Punjab. 
When Aurengzebe died, the empire was in a parlous state 
and never fully recovered. His successors abandoned his 
communalist policies, but the damage was done. Even Mus- 
lims were disaffected: there had been nothing authentically 
Islamic about Aurengzebe's zeal for the Shariah, which 
preaches justice for all, including the dhimmis. The empire 
began to disintegrate, and local Muslim officials tended to 
control their regions as autonomous units. 

The Moghuls managed to remain in power, however, until 
1739, and there was a rapprochement during the eighteenth 
century between Hindus and Muslims in the court; they 
learned to speak one another's languages and to read and 
translate books from Europe together. But Sikhs and the 
Hindu chieftains from the mountainous regions still fought 
the regime, and in the north-west the Afghan tribes which 

Islam • 129 

had brought down the Safavid Empire in Iran made an un- 
successful bid to establish a new Muslim empire in India. In- 
dian Muslims began to feel uneasy about their position, and 
their problems foreshadowed many of the difficulties and de- 
bates that would continue to exercise Muslims during the 
modern period. They now felt that they were a beleaguered 
minority in an area which was not, like the Anatolian heart- 
lands of the Ottoman Empire, a peripheral region, but one of 
the core cultures of the civilized world. Not only were they 
contending with Hindus and Sikhs, but the British were also 
establishing a strong trading presence which was becoming 
increasingly political, in the subcontinent. For the first time, 
Muslims faced the prospect of being governed by infidels, 
and, given the importance of the ummah in Islamic piety, this 
was profoundly disturbing. It was not simply a matter of pol- 
itics, but touched the deepest recesses of their beings. A new 
insecurity would continue to characterize Muslim life in 
India. Was Islam to become simply another Hindu caste? 
Would Muslims lose their cultural and religious identity, and 
be swamped by foreign traditions that were different from 
those of the Middle East, in which Islam had come to birth? 
Had they lost touch with their roots? 

The Sun thinker Shah Valli-Ullah (1 703-62) believed that 
the answer lay in Sirhindi's position, and his views would con- 
tinue to influence the Muslims of India well into the twenti- 
eth century. He expressed the new embattled vision, and as 
Muslims felt their power slipping away in other parts of the 
world and experienced similar fears about the survival of 
Islam, other philosophers and reformers would reach similar 
conclusions. First, Muslims must unite, bury their sectarian 
differences with one another and present a united front 
against their enemies. The Shariah must be adapted to meet 
the special conditions of the subcontinent, and become a 
means of resisting Hinduization. It was essential that Mus- 

130 . Karen Armstrong 

lims retain the upper hand militarily and politically. So con- 
cerned was he, that Shah Valli-Ullah even supported the dis- 
astrous Afghan attempt to revive Muslim power. A defensive 
strain had entered Muslim thinking, and this would continue 
to characterize Islamic piety in the modern period. 


When the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople (which 
now became known as Istanbul) in 1453, they were in a posi- 
tion to establish an empire, which, because it had been able to 
evolve so gradually, was more firmly grounded than the other 
empires, and would become the most successful and endur- 
ing. The early Ottoman chiefiains had been typical ghazi 
rulers, but in Istanbul the sultans established an absolute 
monarchy, on the Byzantine model, with an elaborate court 
ritual. The state was chiefly based on the old Mongol idea, 
however, seeing the central power as a huge army at the per- 
sonal disposal of the sultan. Mehmed the Conqueror's power 
was based on the support of the Balkan nobility, many of 
whom were now converting to Islam, and the infantry-the 
"new troop" [yeni-chert) — which had become more important 
since the advent of gunpowder. The Janissaries, who, as con- 
verted slaves, were outsiders with no landed interests, became 
an independent force, solidly behind the sultans. The Ot- 
tomans also retained the ethos of their old ideal, seeing them- 
selves as manning a frontier state, dedicated to a jihad against 
the enemies of Islam. To the west they faced Christendom, 
and to the east were the Shii Safavids. The Ottomans became 
as murderously sectarian as the Safavids, and there were mas- 
sacres of Shiis living in Ottoman domains. 

The jihad was phenomenally successful. The campaign of 
Selim I (1467-1520) against the Safavids, which had stopped 
the Iranian advance, developed into a victorious war of con- 



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1 I Conquest; of Suleiman '.iie Magnificent (1520-66) 
SSX; Conquest of 1566-1633 

K&S Lards held temporarily by tt"e Ottomarii, and ater 

reconquered by t^e Safavios 

132 . Karen Armstrong 

quest which brought the whole of Syria and Egypt under Ot- 
toman rule. North Africa and Arabia were also incorporated 
into the empire. To the west, the Ottoman armies continued 
their conquest of Europe and reached the gates of Vienna in 
the 1530s. The sultans now ruled a massive empire, with su- 
perb bureaucratic efficiency, unrivalled by any other state at 
this time. The sultan did not impose uniformity on his sub- 
jects nor did he try to force the disparate elements of his em- 
pire into one huge party. The government merely provided a 
framework which enabled the different groups - Christians, 
Jews, Arabs, Turks, Berbers, merchants, ulama, tariqahs and 
trade guilds -to live together peacefully, each making its own 
contribution, and following its own beliefs and customs. The 
empire was thus a collection of communities, each of which 
claimed the immediate loyalty of its members. The empire 
was divided into provinces, ruled by a governor (pasha) who 
was directly responsible to Istanbul. 

The empire reached its apogee under Suleiman al-Qanuni 
("the Lawgiver") (1520-66), who was known as Suleiman the 
Magnificent in the West. Under his rule, the empire reached 
the limits of its expansion, and Istanbul enjoyed a cultural re- 
naissance, which was chiefly characterized by superb archi- 
tecture, notably that of the court architect Sinan Pasha (d. 
1578). The Ottoman mosques that appeared all over the em- 
pire shared a distinctive style: they were spacious, filled with 
light, had low domes and high minarets. The court also pa- 
tronized painting, history and medicine to a high level, built 
an observatory in 1579 and was intrigued by the new Euro- 
pean discoveries in navigation and geography. There was an 
eager interchange of information with the West during these 
expansive years when, despite Europe's achievements, the 
Ottoman state was the most powerful in the world. 

Like the other two empires, the Ottomans also gave their 
state a special Islamic orientation. Under Suleiman, the 

Islam • 133 

Shariah received a more exalted status than in any previous 
Muslim state. It became the official law of the land for all Mus- 
lims, and the Ottomans were the first to give regular form to 
the Shariah courts. Legal expert-the qadis, who dispensed 
justice in the courts, their consultants (muftis), who interpreted 
the law, and the teachers in the madrasahs — became an official 
government corps, creating a moral and religious link between 
the sultan and his subjects. This was especially valuable in the 
Arab provinces, where the partnership between the state and 
the ulama helped people to accept Turkish rule. Not only did 
the ulama have the backing of the sacred law and so gave legit- 
imacy to the regime, but it was often the case that the ulama, 
who were native to a particular province, acted as essential in- 
termediaries between the indigenous population and the Turk- 
ish governor. 

Ottoman subjects were, in the main, proud of belonging 
to the Shariah state. The Quran had taught that an ummah 
which lived according to God's law would prosper, because 
it was in harmony with the fundamental principles of exis- 
tence. The spectacular successes of the early Ottomans, 
whose legitimacy was largely based on their devotion to 
God's revealed law, seemed to endorse this belief. The ulama 
could also feel that the empire was their state and that the 
Ottomans had achieved a rare integration of public policy 
and Muslim conscience. But this partnership - fruitful as it 
was-had a negative side, since instead of empowering the 
ulama, it would eventually muzzle and even discredit them. 
The Shariah had begun as a protest movement, and much of 
its dynamism derived from its oppositional stance. Under 
the Ottoman system, this was inevitably lost. The ulama be- 
came dependent upon the state. As government officials, the 
sultan and his pashas could-and did-control them by 
threatening to withdraw their subsidies. Abu al-Sund Khola 
Chelebi (1490-1574), who worked out the principles of the 

134 . Karen Armstrong 

Ottoman-ulama alliance, made it clear that the qadis derived 
their authority from the sultan, the guardian of the Shariah, 
and were therefore bound to apply the law according to his 
directives. Thus the Shariah was made to endorse the system 
of absolute monarchy (now more powerful than ever before) 
which it had been originally designed to oppose. 

The Shii ulama of Iran had broken free of the state, and 
had won the support of the people. Many of the Iranian 
ulama would become committed reformers and were able to 
provide the people with effective leadership against despotic 
shahs. A significant number would be open to the democratic 
and liberal ideas of the modern period. But in the Ottoman 
Empire the ulama would become emasculated; deprived of 
their political edge, they became conservative and opposed 
any change. After Suleiman's reign, the curriculum of the 
madrasahs became narrower: the study of Falsafah was 
dropped in favour of a greater concentration onfiqh. The Is- 
lamic stance of the Ottoman Empire, a huge ghazi state, was 
communalist and sectarian. Muslims felt that they were the 
champions of orthodoxy against infidels who pressed on all 
sides. The ulama and even the Sufis imbibed this ethos, and 
when the empire began to show the first signs of weakness, 
this tendency became even more marked. Where the court 
was still open to the new ideas coming from Europe, the 
madrasahs became centres of opposition to any experimenta- 
tion that derived from the European infidels. The ulama op- 
posed the use of printing for Islamic books, for example. 
They turned away from the Christian communities in the 
empire, many of whom were looking eagerly towards the 
new West. The ulama 's influence with the people coloured 
major sectors of Ottoman society, making them resistant to 
the idea of change at a time when change was inevitable. Left 
behind in the old ethos, the ulama would become unable to 
help the people when Western modernity hit the Muslim 
world, and they would have to look elsewhere for guidance. 

Islam • 135 

Even the mighty Ottoman Empire was not proof against 
the limitations of agrarian society, which could not keep pace 
with its expansion. Military discipline weakened, so that the 
sultans found that they could no longer wield absolute power. 
The foundering of the economy led to corruption and tax 
abuse. The upper classes lived in opulence, while revenues 
decreased; trade declined as a result of more effective Euro- 
pean competition, and local governors tended to line their 
own pockets. Nevertheless, the empire did not collapse, but 
retained a vigorous cultural life throughout the seventeenth 
century. By the eighteenth century, however, the decline was 
evident, especially in the peripheral regions. There local re- 
formers tried to restore order by means of religious reform. 

In the Arabian peninsula, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab 
(1 703-92) managed to break away from Istanbul and establish 
a state in central Arabia and the Persian Gulf. He was a typi- 
cal reformer, in the tradition of Ibn Taymiyyah. He believed 
that the current crisis was best met by a fundamentalist return 
to the Quran and sunnah, and by a militant rejection of all 
later accretions, which included medieval fiqh mysticism and 
Falsafah, which most Muslims now regarded as normative. 
Because the Ottoman sultans did not conform to his vision of 
true Islam, Abd al-Wahhab declared that they were apostates 
and worthy of death. Instead, he tried to create an enclave of 
pure faith, based on his view of the first ummah of the seventh 
century. His aggressive techniques would be used by some 
fundamentalists in the twentieth century, a period of even 
greater change and unrest. Wahhabism is the form of Islam 
that is still practised today in Saudi Arabia, a puritan religion 
based on a strictly literal interpretation of scripture and early 
Islamic tradition. 

In Morocco, the Sufi reformer Ahmad ibn Idris (1 780-1836) 
approached the problem differentiy. His solution was to edu- 
cate the people and make them better Muslims. He travelled 
extensively in North Africa and the Yemen, instructing the or- 

136 . Karen Armstrong 

dinary people in their own dialect, and teaching them how to 
perform such basic rituals as the salat prayer correctly. In his 
view, the ulama had failed in their duty, had locked themselves 
away in their madrasahs, interested only in the minutiae offiqh, 
and had left the people to their own devices. Other Neo-Sufis, 
as these reformers are called, performed similar missions in Al- 
geria and Medina. Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi (d. 1832) 
founded the Sanusiayyah movement, which is still the predom- 
inant form of Islam in Libya. The Neo-Sufis had no interest in 
and no knowledge of the new West, but they evolved ideas sim- 
ilar to those espoused by the European Enlightenment by 
means of their own mystical traditions. They insisted that the 
people rely on their own insights, instead of relying on the 
ulama. Ibn Idris went so far as to reject the authority of every 
single Muslim thinker, except the Prophet. He thus encour- 
aged Muslims to cast off habits of deference and to value what 
was new, instead of clinging to past tradition. His mysticism 
was based on the figure of the Prophet, and taught the people 
to model themselves on an ideal human being rather than 
yearn for a distant God, in a sort of devotional humanism. 

There was, therefore, no intrinsic reason why Muslims 
should reject the ethos of the new Europe. Over the centuries 
they had cultivated virtues that would also be crucial to the 
modern West: a passion for social justice, an egalitarian polity, 
freedom of speech and, despite the ideal of tanshid, a de facto 
or (in the case of Shiism) a principled separation of religion 
and politics. But by the end of the eighteenth century the 
most alert Muslims had been forced to recognize that Europe 
had overtaken them. The Ottomans had inflicted stunning 
defeats on the European powers in the early days, but by the 
eighteenth century they could no longer hold their own 
against them, nor deal with them as equals. In the sixteenth 
century Suleiman had granted European traders diplomatic 
immunity. The treaties known as the Capitulations (because 

Islam • 137 

they were formulated under capita: headings) meant that Eu- 
ropean traders living in Ottoman territory were not required 
to observe the law of the land; their offences were tried ac- 
cording to their own laws in their own courts, which were 
presided over by their own consul. Suleiman had negotiated 
these treaties with the nations of Europe as an equal. But by 
the eighteenth century it was clear that these Capitulations 
were weakening Ottoman sovereignty, especially when they 
were extended in 1740 to the Christian millets in the empire, 
who were now "protected" like the European expatriates, and 
no longer subject to government control. 

By the late eighteenth century the Ottoman Empire was in 
a critical state. Trade had declined still further; the Bedouin 
tribes were out of control in the Arab provinces, and the local 
pashas were no longer adequately managed by Istanbul, were 
often corrupt, and exploited the population. The West, how- 
ever, was going from one triumph to another. But the Ot- 
tomans were not unduly worried. Sultan Selim III tried to 
take a leaf out of Europe's book, assuming that an army re- 
form along Western lines would restore the balance of power. 
In 1789 he opened a number of military schools with French 
instructors, where students learned European languages and 
studied the new Western sciences alongside modern martial 
arts. But this would not be sufficient to contain the Western 
threat. Muslims had not yet realized that Europe had evolved 
a wholly different type of society since the Ottoman Empire 
had been established, that they had now pulled irrevocably 
ahead of Islamdom and would shortly achieve world power. 

The three great empires were all in decline by the end of 
the eighteenth century. This was not due to the essential in- 
competence or fatalism of Islam, as Europeans often arro- 
gantly assumed. Any agrarian polity had a limited lifespan, 
and these Muslim states, which represented the last flowering 
of the agrarian ideal, had simply come to a natural and in- 

138 . Karen Armstrong 

evitable end. In the pre-modern period, Western and Chris- 
tian empires had also experienced decline and fall. Islamic 
states had collapsed before; on each occasion, Muslims had 
been able to rise phoenix-like from the ruins and had gone on 
to still greater achievements. But this time, it was different. 
The Muslim weakness at the end of the eighteenth century 
coincided with the rise of an entirely different type of civi- 
lization in the West, and this time the Muslim world would 
find it far more difficult to meet the challenge. 


WEST (1750.2000) 

The rise of the West is unparalleled in world history. The 
countries north of the Alps had for centuries been regarded 
as a backward region, which had attached itself to the 
Greco-Roman culture of the south and had, gradually, de- 
veloped its own distinctive version of Christianity and its 
own form of agrarian culture. Western Europe lagged far 
behind the Christian empire of Byzantium, where the 
Roman Empire had not collapsed as it had in Europe. By the 
twelfth and thirteenth centuries these western European 
countries had just about caught up with the other core cul- 
tures, and by the sixteenth century had begun a process of 
major transformation that would enable the West to domi- 
nate the rest of the world. The achievement of such ascen- 
dancy by an outgroup is unique. It is similar to the emergence 
of the Arab Muslims as a major world power in the seventh 
and eighth centuries, but the Muslims had not achieved 
world hegemony, and had not developed a new kind of civ- 
ilization, as Europe had begun to do in the sixteenth cen- 
tury. When the Ottomans had tried to reorganize their army 
along Western lines in the hope of containing the threat 
from Europe, their efforts were doomed because they were 
too superficial. To beat Europe at its own game, a conven- 
tional agrarian society would have to transform itself from 
top to bottom, and re-create its entire social, economic, 
educational, religious, spiritual, political and intellectual 
structures. And it would have to do this very quickly, an im- 
possible task, since it had taken the West almost three hun- 
dred years to achieve this development. 

142 . Karen Armstrong 

The new society of Europe and its American colonies had 
a different economic basis. Instead of relying upon a surplus 
of agricultural produce, it was founded on a technology and 
an investment of capital that enabled the West to reproduce 
its resources indefinitely, so that Western society was no 
longer subject to the same constraints as an agrarian culture. 
This major revolution in reality constituted a second Axial 
Age, which demanded a revolution of the established mores 
on several fronts at the same time: political, social and intel- 
lectual. It had not been planned or thought out in advance, 
but had been the result of a complex process which had led to 
the creation of democratic, secular social structures. By the 
sixteenth century Europeans had achieved a scientific revo- 
lution that gave them greater control over the environment 
than anybody had achieved before. There were new inven- 
tions in medicine, navigation, agriculture and industry. None 
of these was in itself decisive, but their cumulative effect was 
radical. By 1600 innovations were occurring on such a scale 
that progress seemed irreversible: a discovery in one field 
would often lead to fresh insights in another. Instead of seeing 
the world as governed by immutable laws, Europeans had 
found that they could alter the course of nature. Where the 
conservative society created by agrarian culture had not been 
able to afford such change, people in Europe and America 
were becoming more confident. They were now prepared to 
invest and reinvest capital in the firm expectation of continu- 
ing progress and the continuous improvement of trade. By 
the time this technicalization of society had resulted in the 
industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, Westerners 
felt such assurance that they no longer looked back to the past 
for inspiration, as in the agrarian cultures and religions, but 
looked forward to the future. 

The modernization of society involved social and intellec- 
tual change. The watchword was efficiency: an invention or a 

Islam • 143 

polity had to be seen to work effectively. An increasing num- 
ber of people were needed to take part in the various scien- 
tific and industrial projects at quite humble levels- as 
printers, clerks, factory workers- and in order to acquire a 
modicum of the new standards, they had to receive some kind 
of education. More people were needed to buy the mass- 
produced goods, so that to keep the economy going an in- 
creasing number of people had to live above subsistence level. 
As more of the workers became literate, they demanded a 
greater share in the decisions of government. If a nation 
wanted to use all its human resources to enhance its produc- 
tivity, it had to bring groups who had hitherto been segre- 
gated and marginalized, such as the Jews, into mainstream 
culture. Religious differences and spiritual ideals must not be 
allowed to impede the progress of society, and scientists, 
monarchs and government officials insisted that they be free 
of ecclesiastical control. Thus the ideals of democracy, plu- 
ralism, toleration, human rights and secularism were not sim- 
ply beautiful ideals dreamed up by political scientists, but 
were, at least in part, dictated by the needs of the modern 
state. It was found that in order to be efficient and productive, 
a modern nation had to be organized on a secular, democratic 
basis. But it was also found that if societies did organize all 
their institutions according to the new rational and scientific 
norms, they became indomitable and the conventional agrar- 
ian states were no match for them. 

This had fateful consequences for the Islamic world. The 
progressive nature of modern society and an industrialized 
economy meant that it had continuously to expand. New 
markets were needed, and, once the home countries had been 
saturated, they had to be sought abroad. The Western states 
therefore began, in various ways, to colonize the agrarian 
countries outside modern Europe in order to draw them into 
their commercial network. This too was a complex process. 

144 . Karen Armstrong 

The colonized country provided raw materials for export, 
which were fed into European industry. In return, it received 
cheap manufactured Western goods, which meant that local 
industry was usually ruined. The colony also had to be trans- 
formed and modernized along European lines, its financial 
and commercial life rationalized and brought into the West- 
ern system, and at least some of the "natives" had to acquire 
some familiarity with the modern ideas and ethos. 

This colonization was experienced by the agrarian colonies 
as invasive, disturbing and alien. Modernization was inevitably 
superficial, since a process that had taken Europe three cen- 
turies had to be achieved at top speed. Where modern ideas 
had time to filter down gradually to all classes of society in 
Europe, in the colonies only a small number of people, who 
were members of the upper classes and-significantly-the 
military, could receive a Western education and appreciate 
the dynamic of modernity. The vast majority of the popula- 
tion were left perforce to rot in the old agrarian ethos. Society 
was divided, therefore, and increasingly neither side could 
understand the other. Those who had been left outside the 
modernizing process had the disturbing experience of watch- 
ing their country become utterly strange, like a friend disfig- 
ured by disease and become unrecognizable. They were ruled 
by secular foreign law-codes which they could not under- 
stand. Their cities were transformed, as Western buildings 
"modernized" the towns, often leaving the "old city" as a mu- 
seum piece, a tourist trap and a relic of a superseded age. 
Western tourists have often felt disoriented and lost in the 
winding alleys and apparent chaos of an oriental city: they do 
not always appreciate that for many of the indigenous popu- 
lation, their modernized capitals are equally alien. People felt 
lost in their own countries. Above all, local people of all 
classes of society resented the fact that they were no longer in 
control of their own destiny. They felt that they had severed 

Islam • 145 

all connection with their roots, and experienced a sinking loss 
of identity. 

Where Europeans and Americans had been allowed to 
modernize at their own pace, and to set their own agendas, 
the inhabitants of the colonized countries had to modernize 
far too rapidly and were forced to comply with somebody 
else's programme. But even Western people had found the 
transformation of their society painful. They had experi- 
enced almost four hundred years of political and often bloody 
revolutions, reigns of terror, genocide, violent wars of reli- 
gion, the despoliation of the countryside, vast social up- 
heavals, exploitation in the factories, spiritual malaise and 
profound anomie in the new megacities. Today we are seeing 
similar violence, cruelty, revolution and disorientation in the 
developing countries, which are making an even more diffi- 
cult rite of passage to modernity. It is also true that the mod- 
ern spirit that developed in the West is fundamentally 
different. In Europe and America it had two main character- 
istics: innovation and autonomy (the modernizing process was 
punctuated in Europe and America by declarations of inde- 
pendence on the political, intellectual, religious and social 
fronts). But in the developing world, modernity has been ac- 
companied not by autonomy but by a loss of independence 
and national autonomy. Instead of innovation, the developing 
countries can only modernize by imitating the West, which is 
so far advanced that they have no hope of catching up. Since 
the modernizing process has not been the same, it is unlikely 
that the end product will conform to what the West regards as 
the desirable norm. If the correct ingredients of a cake are not 
available-if rice is used instead of flour, dried eggs instead 
of fresh, and spices instead of sugar -the result will be differ- 
ent from the cake described in the cookbook. Very different 
ingredients have gone into the modern cake of the colonized 
countries, and democracy, secularism, pluralism and the rest 

146 . Karen Armstrong 

are not likely to emerge from the process in the way that they 
did in the West. 

The Islamic world has been convulsed by the moderniza- 
tion process. Instead of being one of the leaders of world 
civilization, Islamdom was quickly and permanently re- 
duced to a dependent bloc by the European powers. Mus- 
lims were exposed to the contempt of the colonialists, who 
were so thoroughly imbued with the modern ethos that they 
were often appalled by what they could only see as the back- 
wardness, inefficiency, fatalism and corruption of Muslim 
society. They assumed that European culture had always 
been progressive, and lacked the historical perspective to see 
that they were simply seeing a pre-modern agrarian society, 
and that a few centuries earlier Europe had been just as 
"backward." They often took it for granted that Westerners 
were inherently and racially superior to "orientals" and ex- 
pressed their contempt in myriad ways. All this not unnatu- 
rally had a corrosive effect. Western people are often 
bewildered by the hostility and rage that Muslims often feel 
for their culture, which, because of their very different ex- 
perience, they have found to be liberating and empowering. 
But the Muslim response is not bizarre and eccentric; be- 
cause the Islamic world was so widespread and strategically 
placed, it was the first to be subjected in a concerted, sys- 
tematic manner to the colonization process in the Middle 
East, India, Arabia, Malaya and a significant part of Africa. 
Muslims in all these places very early felt the brunt of this 
modernizing assault. Their response has not been simply a 
reaction to the new West, but the paradigmatic reaction. 
They would not be able to come to modernity as success- 
fully or as smoothly as, for example, Japan, which had never 
been colonized, whose economy and institutions had re- 
mained intact and which had not been forced into a debili- 
tating dependency on the West. 

Islam • 147 

The European invasion of the Islamic world was not uni- 
form, but it was thorough and effective. It began in Moghul 
India. During the latter half of the eighteenth century, 
British traders had established themselves in Bengal, and at 
this time, when modernization was still in its infancy, the 
British lived on a par with the Hindu and Muslim merchants. 
But this phase of British activity is known as the "plundering 
of Bengal," because it permanently damaged the local indus- 
try, and changed its agriculture so that Bengalis no longer 
grew crops for themselves but produced raw materials for 
the industrialized Western markets. Bengal had been re- 
duced to second-class status in the world economy. Gradu- 
ally as the British became more "modern" and efficient 
themselves, their attitude became more superior, and they 
were determined to "civilize" the Indians, backed up by the 
Protestant missionaries who started to arrive in 1793. But the 
Bengalis were not encouraged to evolve a fully industrialized 
society of their own; the British administrators introduced 
only those aspects of modern technology that would rein- 
force their supremacy and keep Bengal in a complementary 
role. The Bengalis did benefit from British efficiency, which 
kept such disasters as disease, famine and war at bay, and the 
population increased as a result; but this created new prob- 
lems of overcrowding and poverty, since there was no option 
of migration to the towns, as in the West, and the people all 
had to stay on the land. 

The plundering of Bengal economically led to political 
domination. Between 1798 and 1818, by treaty or by military 
conquest, British rule was established throughout India, ex- 
cept in the Indus Valley, which was subdued between 1843 
and 1849. In the meantime, the French had tried to set up an 
empire of their own. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte occupied 
Egypt, hoping to establish a base in Suez that would cut the 
British sea routes to India. He brought with him a corps of 

148 . Karen Armstrong 

scholars, a library of modern European literature, a scientific 
laboratory and a printing press with Arabic type. From the 
start, the advanced culture of Europe, coming as it did with a 
superbly efficient modern army, was experienced in the Mus- 
lim Middle East as an assault. Napoleon's expedition to Egypt 
and Syria failed. He had intended to attack British India from 
the north, with the help of Russia. This gave Iran a wholly 
new strategic importance, and for the next century Britain es- 
tablished a base in the south of the country, while the Rus- 
sians tried to get control of the north. Neither wanted to 
make Iran a full colony or protectorate (until oil was discov- 
ered there in the early twentieth century), but both powers 
dominated the new Qajar dynasty, so that the shahs did not 
dare to make a move without the support of at least one of 
them. As in Bengal, both Britain and Russia promoted only 
the technology that furthered their own interests and blocked 
such inventions as the railway, which might have benefited 
the Iranian people, in case it endangered their own strategic 

The European powers colonized one Islamic country after 
another. France occupied Algeria in 1830, and Britain Aden 
nine years later. Tunisia was occupied in 1881, Egypt in 1882, 
the Sudan in 1889 and Libya and Morocco in 1912. In 1915 the 
Sykes-Picot agreement divided the territories of the moribund 
Ottoman Empire (which had sided with Germany during the 
First World War) between Britain and France in anticipation of 
victory. After the war, Britain and France duly set up protec- 
torates and mandates in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and 
Transjordan. This was experienced as an outrage, since the 
European powers had promised the Arab provinces of the 
Ottoman Empire independence. In the Ottoman heartlands, 
Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatiirk (1881-1938), was able to 
keep the Europeans at bay and set up the independent state of 
Turkey. Muslims in the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia be- 

Islam • 149 

came subject to the new Soviet Union. Even after some of these 
countries had been allowed to become independent, the West 
often continued to control the economy, the oil or such re- 
sources as the Suez Canal. European occupation often left a 
legacy of bitter conflict. When the British withdrew from India 
in 1947, the Indian subcontinent was partitioned between 
Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, which are to this day in a 
state of deadly hostility, with nuclear weapons aimed at each 
other's capitals. In 1948 the Arabs of Palestine lost their home- 
land to the Zionists, who set up the Jewish secular state of Is- 
rael there, with the support of the United Nations and the 
international community. The loss of Palestine became a po- 
tent symbol of the humiliation of the Muslim world at the 
hands of the Western powers, who seemed to feel no qualms 
about the dispossession and permanent exile of hundreds of 
thousands of Palestinians. 

Nevertheless, in the very early days, some Muslims were 
in love with the West. The Iranian intellectuals Mulkum 
Khan (1833-1908) and Aqa Khan Kirmani (1853-96) urged 
Iranians to acquire a Western education and replace the 
Shariah with a modern secular legal code, seeing this as the 
only route to progress. Secularists from these circles joined 
the more liberal ulama in the Constitutional Revolution of 
1906, and forced the Qajars to set up a modern constitution, 
to limit the powers of the monarchy and give Iranians parlia- 
mentary representation. Most of the leading mujtahids in 
Najaf supported the constitution. Sheikh Muhammad Husain 
Naini expressed their view most cogently in his Admonition to 
the Nation (1909), which argued that limiting tyranny in this 
way was clearly an act worthy of the Shiah, and that constitu- 
tional government, Western-style, was the next best thing to 
the return of the Hidden Imam. The Egyptian writer Rifah 
al-Tahtawi (1801-73) was enthralled by the ideas of the Eu- 
ropean Enlightenment, whose vision reminded him of Fal- 

150. Karen Armstrong 

safah. He loved the way everything worked properly in Paris, 
was impressed by the rational precision of French culture, by 
the literacy of even the common people, and intrigued by the 
passion for innovation. He longed to help Egypt enter this 
brave new world. In India, Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) 
tried to adapt Islam to modern Western liberalism, claiming 
that the Quran was quite in accordance with the natural laws 
that were being discovered by modern science. He founded a 
college at Aligharh where Muslims could study science and 
English alongside the conventional Islamic subjects. He 
wanted to help Muslims to live in a modernized society with- 
out becoming carbon copies of the British, retaining a sense 
of their own cultural identity. 

Before colonization had got under way in their areas, some 
Muslim rulers had tried to modernize on their own initiative. 
The Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II had inaugurated the Tanzi- 
mat (Regulations) in 1826, which abolished the Janissaries, 
modernized the army and introduced some of the new tech- 
nology. In 1839 Sultan Abdulhamid issued the Giilhane de- 
cree, which made his rule dependent upon a contractual 
relationship with his subjects, and looked forward to major re- 
form of the empire's institutions. More dramatic, however, 
was the modernization programme of the Albanian pasha of 
Egypt Muhammad Ali (1769-1849), who made Egypt virtu- 
ally independent of Istanbul, and almost single-handedly 
dragged this backward province into the modern world. But 
the brutality of his methods showed how difficult it was to 
modernize at such breakneck speed. He massacred the polit- 
ical opposition; twenty-three thousand peasants are said to 
have died in the conscripted labour bands that improved 
Egypt's irrigation and water communications; other peasants 
so feared conscription into Muhammad All's modernized 
army that they frequently resorted to self -mutilation, cutting 
off their own fingers and even blinding themselves. To secu- 

Islam . l$l 

larize the country, Muhammad Ah simply confiscated much 
religiously endowed property and systematically marginal- 
ized the ulama, divesting them of any shred of power. As a re- 
sult, the ulama, who had experienced modernity as a shocking 
assault, became even more insular and closed their minds 
against the new world that was coming into being in their 
country. Muhammad All's grandson Ismail Pasha (1803-95) 
was even more successful: he paid for the construction of the 
Suez Canal, built nine hundred miles of railways, irrigated 
some 1,373,000 acres of hitherto uncultivable land, set up 
modern schools for boys and girls and transformed Cairo into 
a modern city. Unfortunately, the cost of this ambitious pro- 
gramme made Egypt bankrupt, forced the country into debt 
and gave Britain a pretext for establishing its military occupa- 
tion in 1882 to safeguard the interests of the European share- 
holders. Muhammad Ali and Ismail had wanted to make 
Egypt a modern independent state; instead, as a result of 
modernization, it simply became a virtual British colony. 

None of these early reformers fully appreciated the ideas 
behind the transformation of Europe. Their reforms were, 
therefore, superficial. But later reformers up to and including 
Saddam Hussein have also simply tried to acquire the mili- 
tary technology and outer trappings of the modern West, 
without bothering overmuch about its effects upon the rest of 
society. From an early date, however, some reformers were 
acutely aware of these dangers. One of the first to sound the 
alarm was the Iranian activist Jamal al-Din (1839-97), who 
styled himself "al-Afghani" ("the Afghan"), probably hoping 
that he would attract a wider audience in the Muslim world 
as an Afghan Sunni than as an Iranian Shii. He had been in 
India at the time of the great mutiny of Hindus and Muslims 
against British rule in 1857; wherever he travelled in Arabia, 
Egypt, Turkey, Russia or Europe he was aware of the ubiqui- 
tous power of the West, and was convinced that it would soon 

152 . Karen Armstrong 

dominate and crash the Muslim world. He could see the dan- 
gers of a shallow imitation of Western life, and asked the peo- 
ple of the Islamic world to join forces against the European 
threat; they must come to the scientific culture of the new 
world on their own terms. They must, therefore, cultivate 
their own cultural traditions, and that meant Islam. But Islam 
itself must respond to the changed conditions and become 
more rational and modern. Muslims must rebel against the 
long closing of the "gates of ijtihad' and use their own unfet- 
tered reason, as both the Prophet and the Koran had insisted. 
The Western encroachment had made politics central to 
the Islamic experience once more. From the time of the 
Prophet Muhammad, Muslims had seen current events as 
theophanies; they had encountered a God who was present 
in history, and had issued a constant challenge to build a bet- 
ter world. Muslims had sought a divine meaning in political 
events, and even their setbacks and tragedies had led to 
major developments in theology and spirituality. When 
Muslims had achieved a type of polity that was more in ac- 
cordance with the spirit of the Quran after the decline of the 
Abbasid caliphate, they had agonized less about the political 
health of the ummah, and felt free to develop a more interior 
piety. But the intrusion of the West into their lives raised 
major religious questions. The humiliation of the ummah was 
not merely a political catastrophe, but touched a Muslim's 
very soul. This new weakness was a sign that something had 
gone gravely awry in Islamic history. The Quran had 
promised that a society which surrendered to God's revealed 
will could not fail. Muslim history had proved this. Time and 
again, when disaster had struck, the most devout Muslims 
had turned to religion, made it speak to their new circum- 
stances, and the ummah had not only revived but had usually 
gone on to greater achievements. How could Islamdom be 
falling more and more under the domination of the secular, 

Islam ■ I S3 

Godless West? From this point, a growing number of Mus- 
lims would wrestle with these questions, and their attempts 
to put Muslim history back on the straight path would some- 
times appear desperate and even despairing. The suicide 
bomber-an almost unparalleled phenomenon in Islamic 
history-shows that some Muslims are convinced that they 
are pitted against hopeless odds. 

Al-Afghani's political campaigns, which were often either 
bizarre or downright immoral, smacked of this new despera- 
tion. In 1896, for example, one of his disciples assassinated the 
shah of Iran. But his friend and colleague the Egyptian 
scholar Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905) was a deeper and 
more measured thinker. He believed that education and not 
revolution was the answer. Abdu had been devastated by the 
British occupation of Egypt, but he loved Europe, felt quite at 
ease with Europeans and was widely read in Western science 
and philosophy. He greatly respected the political, legal and 
educational institutions of the modern West, but did not be- 
lieve that they could be transplanted wholesale in a deeply 
religious country, such as Egypt, where modernization had 
been too rapid and had perforce excluded the vast mass of the 
people. It was essential to graft modern legal and constitu- 
tional innovations on to traditional Islamic ideas that the peo- 
ple could understand; a society in which people cannot 
understand the law becomes in effect a country without law. 
The Islamic principle of shurah (consultation), for example, 
could help Muslims to understand the meaning of democ- 
racy. Education also needed reform. Madrasah students 
should study modern science, so that they could help Mus- 
lims to enter the new world in an Islamic context that would 
make it meaningful to them. But the Shariah would need to be 
brought up to date, and both Abdu and his younger contem- 
porary, the journalist Rashid Rida (1865-1935), knew that this 
would be a long and complex process. Rida was alarmed by 

154 . Karen Armstrong 

the growing secularism of Arab intellectuals and pundits, 
who sometimes poured scorn upon Islam in the belief that it 
was holding their people back. This, Rida believed, could 
only weaken the ummah and make it even more prey to West- 
ern imperialism. Rida was one of the first Muslims to advo- 
cate the establishment of a fully modernized but fully Islamic 
state, based on the reformed Shariah. He wanted to establish 
a college where students could be introduced to the study of 
international law, sociology, world history, the scientific study 
of religion, and modern science, at the same time as they 
studied fiqh. This would ensure that Islamic jurisprudence 
would develop in a truly modern context that would wed the 
traditions of East and West, and make the Shariah, an agrar- 
ian law code, compatible with the new type of society that the 
West had evolved. 

The reformers constantly felt that they had to answer the 
European criticisms of Islam. In religious as in political af- 
fairs, the West was now setting the Muslim agenda. In India, 
the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938) in- 
sisted that Islam was just as rational as any Western system. 
Indeed, it was the most rational and advanced of all the con- 
fessional faiths. Its strict monotheism had liberated humanity 
from mythology, and the Quran had urged Muslims to ob- 
serve nature closely, reflect upon their observations and sub- 
ject their actions to constant scrutiny. Thus the empirical 
spirit that had given birth to modernity had in fact originated 
in Islam. This was a partial and inaccurate interpretation of 
history, but no more biased than the Western tendency at this 
time to see Christianity as the superior faith and Europe as 
always having been in the vanguard of progress. Iqbal's em- 
phasis on the rational spirit of Islam led him to denigrate Su- 
fism. He represented the new trend away from mysticism that 
would become increasingly prevalent in the Muslim world, as 
modern rationalism came to seem the only way forward. Iqbal 

Islam . 155 

had been deeply influenced by Western thought and had re- 
ceived a Ph.D. in London. Yet he believed that the West had 
elevated progress at the expense of continuity; its secular in- 
dividualism separated the notion of personality from God 
and made it idolatrous and potentially demonic. As a result, 
the West would eventually destroy itself, a position that was 
easy to understand after the First World War, which could be 
seen as the collective suicide of Europe. Muslims therefore 
had a vital mission to witness to the divine dimension of life, 
not by retiring from the world to engage in contemplation, 
but by an activism that implemented the social ideals of the 

The reformers we have considered so far were intellectu- 
als, who spoke chiefly to the educated elite. In Egypt, the 
young schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna (190649) founded an 
organization that brought their ideas to the masses. The Soci- 
ety of Muslim Brothers became a mass movement through- 
out the Middle East, and was the only ideology at this time 
that was able to appeal to all sectors of society. Al-Banna 
knew that Muslims needed Western science and technology, 
and that they must reform their political and social institu- 
tions. But he was also convinced, like the reformers, that this 
must go hand in hand with a spiritual reformation. When al- 
Banna saw the British living in luxury in the Suez Canal 
Zone, he was moved to tears by the contrast with the miser- 
able hovels of the Egyptian workers. He saw this as a religious 
problem that needed an Islamic solution. Where Christians 
would often respond to the challenge of modernity by a re- 
assertion of doctrine, Muslims have responded by making a 
social or political effort (jihad). Al-Banna insisted that Islam 
was a total way of life; religion could not be confined to the 
private sphere, as the West contended. His society tried to in- 
terpret the Quran to meet the spirit of the new age, but also 
to unify the Islamic nations, raise the standard of living, 

156 . Karen Armstrong 

achieve a higher level of social justice, fight against illiteracy 
and poverty and liberate Muslim lands from foreign domina- 
tion. Under the colonialists, Muslims had been cut off from 
their roots. As long as they copied other peoples, they would 
remain cultural mongrels. Besides training the Brothers and 
Sisters in the rituals of prayer and Quranic living, al-Banna 
built schools, founded a modern scout movement, ran night 
schools for workers and tutorial colleges to prepare for the 
civil service examinations. The Brothers founded clinics and 
hospitals in the rural areas, built factories, where Muslims got 
better pay, health insurance and holidays than in the state sec- 
tor, and taught Muslims modern labour laws so that they 
could defend their rights. 

The society had its faults. A small minority engaged in ter- 
rorism and this brought about its dissolution (though it has 
since revived, under different auspices). But most of the 
members-who numbered millions of Muslims by 1948 — 
knew nothing about these fringe activities and saw their wel- 
fare and religious mission as crucial. The instant success of 
the society, which had become the most powerful political in- 
stitution in Egypt by the Second World War, showed that the 
vast mass of the people wanted to be modern and religious, 
whatever the intellectuals or the secularist government main- 
tained. This type of social work has continued to characterize 
many of the modern Islamic movements, notably the Mu- 
jamah (Islamic Congress), founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yasin in 
Gaza, which built a similar welfare empire to bring the bene- 
fits of modernity to Palestinians in the territories occupied by 
Israel after the June War of 1967, but in an Islamic context. 


The colonial experience and the collision with Europe had dis- 
located Islamic society. The world had irrevocably changed. It 

Islam • 157 

was hard for Muslims to know how to respond to the West, be- 
cause the challenge was unprecedented. If they were to partic- 
ipate as full partners in the modern world, Muslims had to 
incorporate these changes. In particular, the West had found it 
necessary to separate religion and politics in order to free gov- 
ernment, science and technology from the constraints of con- 
servative religion. In Europe, nationalism had replaced the 
allegiance of faith, which had formerly enabled its societies to 
cohere. But this nineteenth-century experiment proved prob- 
lematic. The nation states of Europe embarked on an arms race 
in 1870, which led ultimately to two world wars. Secular ide- 
ologies proved to be just as murderous as the old religious big- 
otry, as became clear in the Nazi Holocaust and the Soviet 
Gulag. The Enlightenment philosophes had believed that the 
more educated people became, the more rational and tolerant 
they would be. This hope proved to be as Utopian as any of the 
old messianic fantasies. Finally, modern society was committed 
to democracy, and this had, in general, made life more just and 
equitable for more people in Europe and America. But the 
people of the West had had centuries to prepare for the demo- 
cratic experiment. It would be a very different matter when 
modern parliamentary systems would be imposed upon soci- 
eties that were still predominantly agrarian or imperfectly 
modernized, and where the vast majority of the population 
found modern political discourse incomprehensible. 

Politics had never been central to the Christian religious 
experience. Jesus had, after all, said that his Kingdom was not 
of this world. For centuries, the Jews of Europe had refrained 
from political involvement as a matter of principle. But pol- 
itics was no secondary issue for Muslims. We have seen that 
it had been the theatre of their religious quest. Salvation did 
not mean redemption from sin, but the creation of a just so- 
ciety in which the individual could more easily make that ex- 
istential surrender of his or her whole being that would bring 

158 . Karen Armstrong 

fulfilment. The polity was therefore a matter of supreme im- 
portance, and throughout the twentieth century there has 
been one attempt after another to create a truly Islamic state. 
This has always been difficult. It was an aspiration that re- 
quired a jihad, a struggle that could find no simple outcome. 

The ideal of tawhid would seem to preclude the ideal of 
secularism, but in the past both Shiis and Sunnis had ac- 
cepted a separation of religion and politics. Pragmatic poli- 
tics is messy and often cruel; the ideal Muslim state is not a 
"given" that is simply applied, but it takes creative ingenuity 
and discipline to implement the egalitarian ideal of the 
Quran in the grim realities of political life. It is not true that 
Islam makes it impossible for Muslims to create a modern 
secular society, as Westerners sometimes imagine. But it is 
true that secularization has been very different in the Mus- 
lim world. In the West, it has usually been experienced as 
benign. In the early days, it was conceived by such philoso- 
phers as John Locke (1632-1704) as a new and better way of 
being religious, since it freed religion from coercive state 
control and enabled it to be more true to its spiritual ideals. 
But in the Muslim world, secularism has often consisted of a 
brutal attack upon religion and the religious. 

Atatiirk, for example, closed down all the madrasahs, sup- 
pressed the Sufi orders and forced men and women to wear 
modern Western dress. Such coercion is always counterpro- 
ductive. Islam in Turkey did not disappear, it simply went un- 
derground. Muhammad Ali had also despoiled the Egyptian 
ulama, appropriated their endowments and deprived them of 
influence. Later Jamal Abd al-Nasser (1918-70) became for a 
time quite militantly anti-Islamic, and suppressed the Mus- 
lim Brotherhood. One of the Brothers, who belonged to the 
secret terrorist wing of the society, had made an attempt on 
al-Nasser's life, but the majority of the thousands of Brothers 
who languished for years in al-Nasser's concentration camps 

Islam • 159 

had done nothing more inflammatory than hand out leaflets 
or attend a meeting. In Iran, the Pahlavi monarchs were also 
ruthless in their secularism. Reza Shah Pahlavi (reigned 
1921-41) deprived the ulama of their endowments, and re- 
placed the Shariah with a civil system; he suppressed the 
Ashura celebrations in honour of Husain, and forbade Irani- 
ans to go on the hajj: Islamic dress was prohibited, and Reza's 
soldiers used to tear off women's veils with their bayonets and 
rip them to pieces in the street. In 1935, when protestors 
peacefully demonstrated against the Dress Laws in the shrine 
of the Eighth Imam at Mashhad, the soldiers fired on the un- 
armed crowd and there were hundreds of casualties. The 
ulama, who had enjoyed unrivalled power in Iran, had to watch 
their influence crumble. But Ayatollah Muddaris, the cleric 
who attacked Reza in the parliamentary Assembly, was mur- 
dered by the regime in 1937 and the ulama became too fright- 
ened to make any further protest. Reza's son and successor, 
Muhammad Reza Shah (reigned 1944 — 79), proved to be just 
as hostile to and contemptuous of Islam. Hundreds of madrasah 
students who dared to protest against the regime were shot in 
the streets, madrasahs were closed and leading ulama were tor- 
tured to death, imprisoned and exiled. There was nothing 
democratic about this secular regime. SAVAK, the shah's se- 
cret police, imprisoned Iranians without trial, subjected them 
to torture and intimidation, and there was no possibility of 
truly representative government. 

Nationalism, from which Europeans themselves had begun 
to retreat in the latter part of the twentieth century, was also 
problematic. The unity of the ummah had long been a trea- 
sured ideal; now the Muslim world was split into kingdoms 
and republics, whose borders were arbitrarily drawn up by the 
Western powers. It was not easy to build a national spirit, when 
Muslims had been accustomed to think of themselves as Ot- 
toman citizens and members of the Dar al-Islam. Sometimes 

160 . Karen Armstrong 

what passed as nationalism took a purely negative stance and 
became identified with the desire to get rid of the West. Some 
of the new nations had been so constructed that there was 
bound to be tension among their citizens. The southern part of 
the Sudan, for example, was largely Christian, while the north 
was Muslim. For a people who were accustomed to defining 
their identity in religious terms, it would be hard to establish a 
common "Sudanese" nationalism. The problem was even 
more acute in Lebanon, where the population was equally di- 
vided among at least three religious communities - Sunni, 
Shii and Maronite Christian-which had always been au- 
tonomous before. Power sharing proved to be an impossibility. 
The demographic time bomb led to the civil war (1975-90), 
which tragically tore the country apart. In other countries, 
such as Syria, Egypt or Iraq, nationalism would be adopted by 
an elite, but not by the more conservative masses. In Iran, the 
nationalism of the Pahlavis was directly hostile to Islam, since 
it tried to sever the country's connection with Shiism and 
based itself on the ancient Persian culture of the pre-Islamic 

Democracy also posed problems. The reformers who 
wanted to graft modernity on to an Islamic substructure 
pointed out that in itself the ideal of democracy was not in- 
imical to Islam. Islamic law promoted the principles of shurah 
(consultation) and ijmah, where a law had to be endorsed by 
the "consensus" of a representative portion of the ummah. The 
rashidun had been elected by a majority vote. All this was 
quite compatible with the democratic ideal. Part of the diffi- 
culty lay in the way that the West formulated democracy as 
"government of the people, by the people, and for the peo- 
ple." In Islam, it is God and not the people who gives a gov- 
ernment legitimacy. This elevation of humanity could seem 
like idolatry (shirk), since it was a usurpation of God's 
sovereignty. But it was not impossible for the Muslim coun- 

Islam • 161 

tries to introduce representative forms of government with- 
out complying with the Western slogan. But the democratic 
ideal had often been tainted in practice. When the Iranians set 
up their Majlis (Assembly) after the Constitutional Revolu- 
tion of 1906, the Russians helped the shah to close it down. 
Later, when the British were trying to make Iran a protec- 
torate during the 1920s, the Americans noted that they often 
rigged the elections to secure a result favourable to them- 
selves. Later American support for the unpopular Muham- 
mad Reza Shah, who not only closed down the Majlis to effect 
his modernization programme, but systematically denied Ira- 
nians fundamental human rights that democracy was sup- 
posed to guarantee, made it seem that there was a double 
standard. The West proudly proclaimed democracy for its 
own people, but Muslims were expected to submit to cruel 
dictatorships. In Egypt there were seventeen general elec- 
tions between 1923 and 1952, all of which were won by the 
popular Wafd party, but the Wafd were permitted to rule only 
five times. They were usually forced to stand down by either 
the British or by the king of Egypt. 

It was, therefore, difficult for Muslims to set up a modern 
democratic nation-state, in which religion was relegated to 
the private sphere. Other solutions seemed little better. The 
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, founded in 1932, was based on the 
Wahhabi ideal. The official view was that a constitution was 
unnecessary, since the government was based on a literal 
reading of the Quran. But the Quran contains very little leg- 
islation and it had always been found necessary in practice to 
supplement it with more complex jurisprudence. The Saudis 
proclaimed that they were the heirs of the pristine Islam of 
the Arabian peninsula, and the ulama granted the state legiti- 
macy; in return the kings enforced conservative religious val- 
ues. Women are shrouded from view and secluded (even 
though this had not been the case in the Prophet's time), gam- 

162 . Karen Armstrong 

bling and alcohol are forbidden and traditional punishments, 
such as the mutilation of thieves, are enshrined in the legal 
system. Most Muslim states and organizations do not con- 
sider that fidelity to the Quran requires these pre-modern 
penal practices. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, from 
a very early date condemned the Saudis' use of Islamic pun- 
ishments as inappropriate and archaic, especially when the 
lavish wealth of the ruling elite and the unequal distribution 
of wealth offended far more crucial Quranic values. 

Pakistan was another modern Islamic experiment. Muham- 
mad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), the founder of the state, was im- 
bued with the modern secular ideal. Ever since the time of 
Aurengzebe, Muslims had felt unhappy and insecure in India: 
they had feared for their identity and felt anxious about the 
power of the Hindu majority. This naturally became more 
acute after the partition of the subcontinent by the British in 
1947, when communal violence exploded on both sides and 
thousands of people lost their lives. Jinnah had wanted to cre- 
ate a political arena in which Muslims were not defined or 
limited by their religious identity. But what did it mean for a 
Muslim state which made great use of Islamic symbols to be 
" secular" ?The Jamaat-i Islami, founded by Abul Ala Mawdudi 
(1903-79), pressed for a more strict application of Shariah 
norms, and in 1956 the constitution formally defined Pakistan 
as an Islamic Republic. This represented an aspiration, which 
now had to be incarnated in the political institutions of the 
country. The government of General Muhammad Ayub Khan 
(1958-69) was atypical example of the aggressive secularism 
that we have already considered. He nationalized the religious 
endowments (awgaf ), placed restrictions on madrasah educa- 
tion and promoted a purely secular legal system. His aim was 
to make Islam a civil religion, amenable to state control, but 
this led inevitably to tension with the Islamists and eventually 
to Khan's downfall. 

Islam ■ 163 

During the 1970s, the Islamist forces became the main 
focus of opposition to the government, and the leftist, secular- 
ist Prime Minister Zulfaqir Ali Bhutto (1971-77) tried to mol- 
lify them by banning alcohol and gambling, but this was not 
sufficient and in July 1977 the devout Muslim Muhammad 
Zia al-Haqq led a successful coup, and established an ostensi- 
bly more Islamic regime. He reinstated traditional Muslim 
dress, and restored Islamic penal and commercial law. But 
even President Zia kept Islam at bay in political and economic 
matters, where his policy was avowedly secularist. Since his 
death in a plane crash in 1988, Pakistani politics has been 
dominated by ethnic tension, rivalries and corruption scandals 
among members of the elite classes, and the Islamists have 
been less influential. Islam remains important to Pakistan's 
identity and is ubiquitous in public life, but it still does not af- 
fect realpolitik. The compromise is reminiscent of the solu- 
tions of the Abbasids and Mongols, which saw a similar 
separation of powers. The state seems to have forced the Is- 
lamic parties into line, but this state of affairs is far from 
ideal. As in India, disproportionate sums are spent on nuclear 
weapons, while at least a third of the population languishes in 
hopeless poverty, a situation which is abhorrent to a truly 
Muslim sensibility. Muslim activists who feel coerced by the 
state look towards the fundamentalist government of the Tal- 
iban in neighbouring Afghanistan. 

The fact that Muslims have not yet found an ideal polity 
for the twentieth century does not mean that Islam is incom- 
patible with modernity. The struggle to enshrine the Islamic 
ideal in state structures and to find the right leader has pre- 
occupied Muslims throughout their history. Because, like 
any religious value, the notion of the true Islamic state is 
transcendent, it can never be perfectly expressed in human 
form and always eludes the grasp of frail and flawed human 
beings. Religious life is difficult, and the secular rationalism 

164 . Karen Armstrong 

of our modern culture poses special problems for people in 
all the major traditions. Christians, who are more preoccu- 
pied by doctrine than by politics, are currently wrestling 
with dogmatic questions in their effort to make their faith 
speak to the modern sensibility. They are debating their be- 
lief in the divinity of Christ, for example, some clinging to 
the older formulations of the dogma, others finding more 
radical solutions. Sometimes these discussions become an- 
guished and even acrimonious, because the issues touch the 
nub of religiosity that lies at the heart of the Christian vision. 
The struggle for a modern Islamic state is the Muslim equiv- 
alent of this dilemma. All religious people in any age have to 
make their traditions address the challenge of their particu- 
lar modernity, and the quest for an ideal form of Muslim 
government should not be viewed as aberrant but as an es- 
sentially and typically religious activity. 


The Western media often give the impression that the embat- 
tled and occasionally violent form of religiosity known as 
"fundamentalism" is a purely Islamic phenomenon. This is 
not the case. Fundamentalism is a global fact and has surfaced 
in every major faith in response to the problems of our 
modernity. There is fundamentalist Judaism, fundamentalist 
Christianity, fundamentalist Hinduism, fundamentalist Bud- 
dhism, fundamentalist Sikhism and even fundamentalist 
Confucianism. This type of faith surfaced first in the Chris- 
tian world in the United States at the beginning of the twen- 
tieth century. This was not accidental. Fundamentalism is not 
a monolithic movement; each form of fundamentalism, even 
within the same tradition, develops independently and has its 
own symbols and enthusiasms, but its different manifestations 
all bear a family resemblance. It has been noted that a funda- 

Islam • 165 

mentalist movement does not arise immediately, as a knee- 
jerk response to the advent of Western modernity, but only 
takes shape when the modernization process is quite far ad- 
vanced. At first religious people try to reform their traditions 
and effect a marriage between them and modern culture, as 
we have seen the Muslim reformers do. But when these mod- 
erate measures are found to be of no avail, some people resort 
to more extreme methods, and a fundamentalist movement is 
born. With hindsight, we can see that it was only to be ex- 
pected that fundamentalism should first make itself known in 
the United States, the showcase of modernity, and only ap- 
pear in other parts of the world at a later date. Of the three 
monotheistic religions, Islam was in fact the last to develop a 
fundamentalist strain, when modern culture began to take 
root in the Muslim world in the late 1960s and 1970s. By this 
date, fundamentalism was quite well established among 
Christians and Jews, who had had a longer exposure to the 
modern experience. 

Fundamentalist movements in all faiths share certain char- 
acteristics. They reveal a deep disappointment and disen- 
chantment with the modern experiment, which has not 
fulfilled all that it promised. They also express real fear. 
Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied is 
convinced that the secular establishment is determined to 
wipe religion out. This is not always a paranoid reaction. We 
have seen that secularism has often been imposed very ag- 
gressively in the Muslim world. Fundamentalists look back to 
a "golden age" before the irruption of modernity for inspira- 
tion, but they are not atavistically returning to the Middle 
Ages. All are intrinsically modern movements and could have 
appeared at no time other than our own. All are innovative 
and often radical in their reinterpretation of religion. As such, 
fundamentalism is an essential part of the modern scene. 
Wherever modernity takes root, a fundamentalist movement 

166 . Karen Armstrong 

is likely to rise up alongside it in conscious reaction. Funda- 
mentalists will often express their discontent with a modern 
development by overstressing those elements in their tradi- 
tion that militate against it. They are all-even in the United 
States-highly critical of democracy and secularism. Because 
the emancipation of women has been one of the hallmarks of 
modern culture, fundamentalists tend to emphasise conven- 
tional, agrarian gender roles, putting women back into veils 
and into the home. The fundamentalist community can thus 
be seen as the shadow-side of modernity; it can also highlight 
some of the darker sides of the modern experiment. 

Fundamentalism, therefore, exists in a symbiotic rela- 
tionship with a coercive secularism. Fundamentalists nearly 
always feel assaulted by the liberal or modernizing estab- 
lishment, and their views and behaviour become more ex- 
treme as a result. After the famous Scopes Trial (1925) in 
Tennessee, when Protestant fundamentalists tried to pre- 
vent the teaching of evolution in the public schools, they 
were so ridiculed by the secularist press that their theology 
became more reactionary and excessively literal, and they 
turned from the left to the extreme right of the political 
spectrum. When the secularist attack has been more violent, 
the fundamentalist reaction is likely to be even greater. Fun- 
damentalism therefore reveals a fissure in society, which is 
polarized between those who enjoy secular culture and 
those who regard it with dread. As time passes, the two 
camps become increasingly unable to understand one an- 
other. Fundamentalism thus begins as an internal dispute, 
with liberalizers or secularists within one's own culture or 
nation. In the first instance, for example, Muslim fundamen- 
talists will often oppose their fellow countrymen or fellow 
Muslims who take a more positive view of modernity, rather 
than such external foes as the West or Israel. Very often, fun- 
damentalists begin by withdrawing from mainstream cul- 

Islam ' 161 

ture to create an enclave of pure faith (as, for example, 
within the ultra- Orthodox Jewish communities in Jerusalem 
or New York). Thence they will sometimes conduct an of- 
fensive which can take many forms, designed to bring the 
mainstream back to the right path and resacralize the world. 
All fundamentalists feel that they are fighting for survival, 
and because their backs are to the wall, they can believe that 
they have to fight their way out of the impasse. In this frame 
of mind, on rare occasions, some resort to terrorism. The 
vast majority, however, do not commit acts of violence, but 
simply try to revive their faith in a more conventional, law- 
ful way. 

Fundamentalists have been successful in so far as they 
have pushed religion from the sidelines and back to centre 
stage, so that it now plays a major part in international affairs 
once again, a development that would have seemed incon- 
ceivable in the mid-twentieth century when secularism 
seemed in the ascendant. This has certainly been the case in 
the Islamic world since the 1970s. But fundamentalism is not 
simply a way of "using" religion for a political end. These are 
essentially rebellions against the secularist exclusion of the 
divine from public life, and a frequently desperate attempt to 
make spiritual values prevail in the modern world. But the 
desperation and fear that fuel fundamentalists also tend to 
distort the religious tradition, and accentuate its more aggres- 
sive aspects at the expense of those that preach toleration and 

Muslim fundamentalism corresponds very closely to these 
general characteristics. It is not correct, therefore, to imagine 
that Islam has within it a militant, fanatic strain that impels 
Muslims into a crazed and violent rejection of modernity. 
Muslims are in tune with fundamentalists in other faiths all 
over the world, who share their profound misgivings about 
modern secular culture. It should also be said that Muslims 

168 . Karen Armstrong 

object to the use of the term "fundamentalism," pointing out 
quite correctly that it was coined by American Protestants as 
a badge of pride, and cannot be usefully translated into Ara- 
bic. Usui, as we have seen, refers to the fundamental principles 
of Islamic jurisprudence, and as all Muslims agree on these, 
all Muslims could be said to subscribe to usuliyyah (funda- 
mentalism). Nevertheless, for all its shortcomings, "funda- 
mentalism" is the only term we have to describe this family of 
embattled religious movements, and it is difficult to come up 
with a more satisfactory substitute. 

One of the early fundamentalist idealogues was Mawdudi, 
the founder of the Jamaat-i Islami in Pakistan. He saw the 
mighty power of the West as gathering its forces to crush 
Islam. Muslims, he argued, must band together to fight this 
encroaching secularism, if they wanted their religion and 
their culture to survive. Muslims had encountered hostile 
societies before and had experienced disasters but, starting 
with Afghani, a new note had crept into Islamic discourse. 
The Western threat had made Muslims defensive for the first 
time. Mawdudi defied the whole secularist ethos: he was 
proposing an Islamic liberation theology. Because God alone 
was sovereign, nobody was obliged to take orders from any 
other human being. Revolution against the colonial powers 
was not just a right but a duty. Mawdudi called for a univer- 
ssl jihad. Just as the Prophet had fought the jahiliyyah (the "ig- 
norance" and barbarism of the pre-Islamic period), Muslims 
must use all means in their power to resist the modern 
jahiliyyah of the West. Mawdudi argued that jihad was the 
central tenet of Islam. This was an innovation. Nobody had 
ever claimed before that jihad was equivalent to the five Pil- 
lars of Islam, but Mawdudi felt that the innovation was justi- 
fied by the present emergency. The stress and fear of cultural 
and religious annihilation had led to the development of a 
more extreme and potentially violent distortion of the faith. 

Islam • 169 

But the real founder of Islamic fundamentalism in the 
Sunni world was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), who was greatly in- 
fluenced by Mawdudi. Yet he had not originally been an ex- 
tremist but had been filled with enthusiasm for Western 
culture and secular politics. Even after he joined the Muslim 
Brotherhood in 1953 he had been a reformer, hoping to give 
Western democracy an Islamic dimension that would avoid 
the excesses of a wholly secularist ideology. However, in 
1956 he was imprisoned by al-Nasser for membership of the 
Brotherhood, and in the concentration camp he became con- 
vinced that religious people and secularists could not live in 
peace in the same society. As he witnessed the torture and ex- 
ecution of the Brothers, and reflected upon al-Nasser's 
avowed determination to cast religion into a marginal role in 
Egypt, he could see all the characteristics ofjahiliyyah, which 
he defined as the barbarism that was for ever and for all time 
the enemy of faith, and which Muslims, following the exam- 
ple of the Prophet Muhammad, were bound to fight to the 
death. Qutb went further than Mawdudi, who had seen only 
non-Muslim societies as jahili. Qutb applied the term 
jahiliyyah, which in conventional Muslim historiography had 
been used simply to describe the pre-Islamic period in Ara- 
bia, to contemporary Muslim society. Even though a ruler 
such as al-Nasser outwardly professed Islam, his words and 
actions proved him to be an apostate and Muslims were duty- 
bound to overthrow such a government, just as Muhammad 
had forced the pagan establishment of Mecca (the jahiliyyah 
of his day) into submission. 

The violent secularism of al-Nasser had led Qutb to es- 
pouse a form of Islam that distorted both the message of the 
Quran and the Prophet's life. Qutb told Muslims to model 
themselves on Muhammad: to separate themselves from 
mainstream society (as Muhammad had made the hijrab from 
Mecca to Medina), and then engage in a violent jihad. But 

170 . Karen Armstrong 

Muhammad had in fact finally achieved victory by an inge- 
nious policy of non-violence; the Quran adamantly opposed 
force and coercion in religious matters, and its vision-far 
from preaching exclusion and separation-was tolerant and 
inclusive. Qutb insisted that the Quranic injunction to tolera- 
tion could occur only after the political victory of Islam and 
the establishment of a true Muslim state. The new intransi- 
gence sprang from the profound fear that is at the core of fun- 
damentalist religion. Qutb did not survive. At al-Nasser's 
personal insistence, he was executed in 1966. 

Every Sunni fundamentalist movement has been influ- 
enced by Qutb. Most spectacularly it has inspired Muslims to 
assassinate such leaders as Anwar al-Sadat, denounced as a 
jahili ruler because of his oppressive policies towards his own 
people. The Taliban, who came to power in Afghanistan in 
1994, are also affected by his ideology. They are determined 
to return to what they see as the original vision of Islam. The 
ulama are the leaders of the government; women are veiled 
and not permitted to take part in professional life. Only reli- 
gious broadcasting is permitted and the Islamic punishments 
of stoning and mutilation have been reintroduced. In some 
circles of the West, the Taliban are seen as quintessential 
Muslims, but their regime violates crucial Islamic precepts. 
Most of the Taliban ("students" of the madrasahs) belong to 
the Pashtun tribe, and they tend to target non-Pashtuns, who 
fight the regime from the north of the country. Such ethnic 
chauvinism was forbidden by the Prophet and by the Quran. 
Their harsh treatment of minority groups is also opposed to 
clear Quranic requirements. The Taliban's discrimination 
against women is completely opposed to the practice of the 
Prophet and the conduct of the first ummah. The Taliban are 
typically fundamentalist, however, in their highly selective 
vision of religion (which reflects their narrow education in 
some of the madrasahs of Pakistan), which perverts the faith 

Islam • 171 

and turns it in the opposite direction of what was intended. 
Like all the major faiths, Muslim fundamentalists, in their 
struggle to survive, make religion a tool of oppression and 
even of violence. 

But most Sunni fundamentalists have not resorted to 
such an extreme. The fundamentalist movements that sprang 
up during the 1970s and 1980s all tried to change the world 
about them in less drastic but telling ways. After the humil- 
iating defeat of the Arab armies in the Six-Day War against 
Israel in 1967, there was a swing towards religion through- 
out the Middle East. The old secularist policies of such 
leaders as al-Nasser seemed discredited. People felt that the 
Muslims had failed because they had not been true to their 
religion. They could see that while secularism and democ- 
racy worked very well in the West, they did not benefit or- 
dinary Muslims but only an elite in the Islamic world. 
Fundamentalism can be seen as a "post-modern" movement, 
which rejects some of the tenets and enthusiasms of moder- 
nity, such as colonialism. Throughout the Islamic world, 
students and factory workers started to change their imme- 
diate environment. They created mosques in their universi- 
ties and factories, where they could make salat, and set up 
Banna-style welfare societies with an Islamic orientation, 
demonstrating that Islam worked for the people better than 
the secularist governments did. When students declared a 
shady patch of lawn-or even a noticeboard-to be an Is- 
lamic zone, they felt that they had made a small but signifi- 
cant attempt to push Islam from the marginal realm to 
which it had been relegated in secularist society, and re- 
claimed a part of the world-however tiny-for Islam. 
They were pushing forward the frontiers of the sacred, in 
rather the same way as the Jewish fundamentalists in Israel 
who made settlements in the occupied West Bank, reclaim- 
ing Arab land and bringing it under the aegis of Judaism. 

172 . Karen Armstrong 

The same principle underlines the return to Islamic 
dress. When this is forced upon people against their will (as 
by the Taliban) it is coercive and as likely to create a back- 
lash as the aggressive techniques of Reza Shah Pahlavi. But 
many Muslim women feel that veiling is a symbolic return 
to the pre-colonial period, before their society was dis- 
rupted and deflected from its true course. Yet they have not 
simply turned the clock back. Surveys show that a large pro- 
portion of veiled women hold progressive views on such 
matters as gender. For some women, who have come from 
rural areas to the university and are the first members of 
their family to advance beyond basic literacy, the assump- 
tion of Islamic dress provides continuity and makes their 
rite of passage to modernity less traumatic than it might 
otherwise have been. They are coming to join the modern 
world, but on their own terms and in an Islamic context that 
gives it sacred meaning. Veiling can also be seen as a tacit 
critique of some of the less positive aspects of modernity. It 
defies the strange Western compulsion to "reveal all" in sex- 
ual matters. In the West, people often flaunt their tanned, 
well-honed bodies as a sign of privilege; they try to counter- 
act the signs of ageing and hold on to this life. The shrouded 
Islamic body declares that it is oriented to transcendence, 
and the uniformity of dress abolishes class difference and 
stresses the importance of community over Western indi- 

People have often used religion as a way of making mod- 
ern ideas and enthusiasms comprehensible. Not all the Amer- 
ican Calvinists at the time of the 1776 American Revolution 
shared or even understood the secularist ethos of the Found- 
ing Fathers, for example. They gave the struggle a Christian 
colouration so that they were able to fight alongside the sec- 
ularists in the creation of a new world. Some Sunni and Shii 
fundamentalists are also using religion to make the alien 

Islam . 1 73 

tenor of modern culture familiar, giving it a context of mean- 
ing and spirituality that makes it more accessible. Again, they 
are tacitly asserting that it is possible to be modern on other 
cultural terms than those laid down by the West. The Iranian 
Revolution of 1978-79 can be seen in this light. During the 
1960s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-89) brought the 
people of Iran out onto the streets to protest against the cruel 
and unconstitutional policies of Muhammad Reza Shah, 
whom he identified with Yazid, the Umayyad caliph who had 
been responsible for the death of Husain at Kerbala, the type 
of the unjust ruler in Shii Islam. Muslims had a duty to fight 
such tyranny, and the mass of the people, who would have 
been quite unmoved by a socialist call to revolution, could re- 
spond to Khomeini's summons, which resonated with their 
deepest traditions. Khomeini provided a Shii alternative to 
the secular nationalism of the shah. He came to seem more 
and more like one of the imams: like all the imams, he had been 
attacked, imprisoned and almost killed by an unjust ruler; like 
some of the imams, he was forced into exile and deprived of 
what was his own; like Ali and Husain, he had bravely op- 
posed injustice and stood up for true Islamic values; like all 
the imams, he was known to be a practising mystic; like Hu- 
sain, whose son was killed at Kerbala, Khomeini's son Mustafa 
was killed by the shah's agents. 

When the revolution broke in 1978, after a slanderous at- 
tack on Khomeini in the semi-official newspaper Ettelaat, and 
the shocking massacre of young madrasah students who came 
out onto the streets in protest, Khomeini seemed to be direct- 
ing operations from afar (from Najaf, his place of exile), 
rather like the Hidden Imam. Secularists and intellectuals 
were willing to join forces with the ulama because they knew 
that only Khomeini could command the grass-roots support 
of the people. The Iranian Revolution was the only revolu- 
tion inspired by a twentieth-century ideology (the Russian 

174 . Karen Armstrong 

and Chinese revolutions both owed their inspiration to the 
nineteenth-century vision of Karl Marx). Khomeini had 
evolved a radically new interpretation of Shiism: in the ab- 
sence of the Hidden Imam, only the mystically inspired ju- 
rist, who knew the sacred law, could validly govern the nation. 
For centuries, Twelver Shiis had prohibited clerics from par- 
ticipating in government, but the revolutionaries (if not many 
of the ulama) were willing to subscribe to this theory of Ve- 
layat-i Faqih (the Mandate of the Jurist).' Throughout the 
revolution, the symbolism of Kerbala was predominant. Tra- 
ditional religious ceremonies to mourn the dead and the 
Ashura celebrations in honour of Husain became demonstra- 
tions against the regime. The Kerbala myth inspired ordinary 
Shiis to brave the shah's guns and die in their thousands, some 
donning the white shroud of martyrdom. Religion was proved 
to be so powerful a force that it brought down the Pahlavi 
state, which had seemed the most stable and powerful in the 
Middle East. 

But, like all fundamentalists, Khomeini's vision was also 
distorting. The taking of the American hostages in Teheran 
(and, later, by Shii radicals in Lebanon, who were inspired by 
the Iranian example) violates clear Quranic commands about 
the treatment of prisoners, who must be handled with dignity 
and respect, and freed as soon as possible. The captor is even 
obliged to contribute to the ransom from his own resources. 
Indeed, the Quran expressly forbids the taking of prisoners 
except during a conventional war, which obviously rules out 
hostage-taking when hostilities are not in progress. 2 After the 
revolution, Khomeini insisted on what he called "unity of ex- 
pression," suppressing any dissentient voice. Not only had the 
demand for free speech been one of the chief concerns of the 
revolution, but Islam had never insisted on ideological con- 
formity, only upon a uniformity of practice. Coercion in reli- 
gious matters is forbidden in the Quran, and was abhorred by 

Islam . 1 75 

Mulla Sadra, Khomeini's spiritual mentor. When Khomeini 
issued his fatwah against novelist Salman Rushdie on Feb- 
ruary 14, 1989, for his allegedly blasphemous portrait of 
Muhammad in The Satanic Verses, he also contravened Sadra's 
impassioned defence of freedom of thought. The fatwah was 
declared un-Islamic by the ulama of al-Azhar and Saudi Ara- 
bia, and was condemned by forty-eight out of the forty-nine 
member states of the Islamic Conference the following 

But it appears that the Islamic revolution may have 
helped the Iranian people to come to modernity on their 
own terms. Shortly before his death, Khomeini tried to pass 
more power to the parliament, and, with his apparent bless- 
ing, Hashami Rafsanjani, the Speaker of the Majlis, gave a 
democratic interpretation of Velayat-i Faqih. The needs of 
the modern state had convinced Shiis of the necessity of 
democracy, but this time it came in an Islamic package that 
made it acceptable to the majority of the people. This 
seemed confirmed on May 23, 1997, when Hojjat OlTslam 
Seyyid Khatami was elected to the presidency in a landslide 
victory. He immediately made it clear that he wanted to 
build a more positive relationship with the West, and in 
September 1998 he dissociated his government from the fat- 
wah against Rushdie, a move which was later endorsed by Ay- 
atollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Faqih of Iran. Khatami's 
election signalled the strong desire of a large segment of the 
population for greater pluralism, a gentler interpretation of 
Islamic law, more democracy and a more progressive policy 
for women. The battle is still not won. The conservative cler- 
ics who opposed Khomeini and for whom he had little time 
are still able to block many of Khatami's reforms, but the 
struggle to create a viable Islamic state, true to the spirit of 
the Quran and yet responsive to current conditions, is still a 
major preoccupation of the Iranian people. 

176 . Karen Armstrong 


The spectre of Islamic fundamentalism sends a shiver 
through Western society, which seems not nearly so threat- 
ened by the equally prevalent and violent fundamentalism of 
other faiths. This has certainly affected the attitude of West- 
ern people towards the Muslims living in their own countries. 
Five to six million Muslims reside in Europe, and seven to 
eight million in the United States. There are now about a 
thousand mosques each in Germany and France, and five 
hundred in the United Kingdom. About half the Muslims in 
the West today have been born there to parents who immi- 
grated in the 1950s and 1960s. They rejected their parents' 
meeker stance, are better educated and seek greater visibility 
and acceptance. Sometimes their efforts are ill-advised, as, for 
example, Dr. Kalim Siddiqui's call for a Muslim parliament in 
the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, a project which re- 
ceived very little support from most British Muslims but 
which made people fear that Muslims were not willing to in- 
tegrate into mainstream society. There was immense hostility 
towards the Muslim community during the crisis over The Sa- 
tanic Verses, when Muslims in Bradford publicly burned the 
book. Most British Muslims may have disapproved of the 
novel, but had no desire to see Rushdie killed. Europeans 
seem to find it difficult to relate to their Muslim fellow 
countrymen in a natural, balanced manner. Turkish migrant 
workers have been murdered in race riots in Germany, and 
girls who choose to wear a hijab to school have received ex- 
tremely hostile coverage in the French press. In Britain, there 
is often outrage when Muslims request separate schools for 
their children, even though people do not voice the same ob- 
jections about special schools for Jews, Roman Catholics or 
Quakers. It is as though Muslims are viewed as a Fifth Col- 
umn, plotting to undermine British society. 

Islam . 177 

Muslims have fared better in the United States. The Mus- 
lim immigrants there are better educated and middle class. 
They work as doctors, academics and engineers, whereas in 
Europe the Muslim community is still predominantly work- 
ing class. American Muslims feel that they are in the United 
States by choice. They want to become Americans, and in the 
land of the melting pot integration is more of a possibility 
than in Europe. Some Muslims, such as Malcolm X (1925-65), 
the charismatic leader of the black separatist group called the 
Nation of Islam, gained widespread respect at the time of the 
Civil Rights movement, and became an emblem of Black and 
Muslim power. The Nation of Islam, however, was a hetero- 
dox party. Founded in 1930 by Wallace Fard, a pedlar of De- 
troit, and, after the mysterious disappearance of Fard in 1934, 
led by Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975), it claimed that God 
had been incarnated in Fard, that white people are inherently 
evil and that there was no life after death-all views that are 
heretical from an Islamic perspective. The Nation of Islam de- 
manded a separate state for African Americans to compensate 
them for the years of slavery, and is adamantly hostile to the 
West. Malcolm X became disillusioned with the Nation of 
Islam, however, when he discovered the moral laxity of Elijah 
Muhammad, and took his followers into Sunni Islam: two 
years later, he was assassinated for this apostasy. But the Na- 
tion of Islam still gains far more media coverage than the 
much larger American Muslim Mission, founded by Malcolm 
X, which is now wholly orthodox, sends its members to study 
at al-Azhar and explores the possibility of working alongside 
white Americans for a more just society. The bizarre and re- 
jectionist stance of the Nation may seem closer to the Western 
stereotype of Islam as an inherently intolerant and fanatical 

In India, those Muslims who did not emigrate to Pakistan 
in 1947 and their descendants now number 115 million. But 
despite their large numbers, many feel even more belea- 

178 . Karen Armstrong 

guered and endangered than their brothers and sisters in the 
West. The Hindus and Muslims of India are all still haunted 
by the tragic violence of the partition of the subcontinent in 
1947, and though many Hindus stand up for Muslim rights in 
India, Muslims tend to get a bad press. They are accused of a 
ghetto mentality, of being loyal at heart to Pakistan or Kash- 
mir; they are blamed for having too many children, and for 
being backward. Indian Muslims are being squeezed out of 
the villages, cannot easily get good jobs and are often refused 
decent accommodation. The only signs of the glorious Moghul 
past are the great buildings: the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and 
the Juneh Mosque, which have also become a rallying point 
for the Hindu fundamentalist group, the Bharatiya Janata 
Party (BJP), which claims that they were really built by Hin- 
dus, that the Muslims destroyed the temples of India and 
erected mosques in their place. The BJPs chief target was the 
Mosque of Babur, the founder of the Moghul dynasty, at Ay- 
odhya, which the BJP dismantled in ten hours in December 
1992, while the press and army stood by and watched. The 
impact on the Muslims of India has been devastating. They 
fear that this symbolic destruction was only the beginning of 
further troubles, and that soon they and their memory will be 
erased in India. This dread of annihilation lay behind their 
frantic opposition to The Satanic Verses, which seemed yet an- 
other threat to the faith. Yet the communalism and intoler- 
ance is against the most tolerant and civilized traditions of 
Indian Islam. Yet again, fear and oppression have distorted 
the faith. 


On the eve of the second Christian millennium, the Cru- 
saders massacred some thirty thousand Jews and Muslims in 
Jerusalem, turning the thriving Islamic holy city into a stink- 

Islam . 179 

ing charnel house. For at least five months the valleys and 
ditches around the city were filled with putrefying corpses, 
which were too numerous for the small number of Crusaders 
who remained behind after the expedition to clear away, and 
a stench hung over Jerusalem, where the three religions of 
Abraham had been able to coexist in relative harmony under 
Islamic rule for nearly five hundred years. This was the Mus- 
lims' first experience of the Christian West, as it pulled itself 
out of the dark age that had descended after the collapse of 
the Roman Empire in the fifth century, and fought its way 
back on to the international scene. The Muslims suffered 
from the Crusaders, but were not long incommoded by their 
presence. In 1187 Saladin was able to recapture Jerusalem for 
Islam and though the Crusaders hung on in the Near East for 
another century, they seemed an unimportant passing episode 
in the long Islamic history of the region. Most of the inhabi- 
tants of Islamdon were entirely unaffected by the Crusades 
and remained uninterested in western Europe, which, despite 
its dramatic cultural advance during the crusading period, 
still lagged behind the Muslim world. 

Europeans did not forget the Crusades, however, nor could 
they ignore the Dar al-Islam, which, as the years went by, 
seemed to rule the entire globe. Ever since the Crusades, the 
people of Western Christendom developed a stereotypical 
and distorted image of Islam, which they regarded as the 
enemy of decent civilization. The prejudice became en- 
twined with European fantasies about Jews, the other victims 
of the Crusaders, and often reflected buried worry about the 
conduct of Christians. It was, for example, during the Cru- 
sades, when it was Christians who had instigated a series of 
brutal holy wars against the Muslim world, that Islam was de- 
scribed by the learned scholar-monks of Europe as an inher- 
ently violent and intolerant faith, which had only been able to 
establish itself by the sword. The myth of the supposed fanat- 

180 . Karen Armstrong 

ical intolerance of Islam has become one of the received ideas 
of the West. 

As the millennium drew to a close, however, some Mus- 
lims seemed to live up to this Western perception, and, for the 
first time, have made sacred violence a cardinal Islamic duty. 
These fundamentalists often call Western colonialism and 
post-colonial Western imperialism al-Salibiyyah:the Crusade. 
The colonial crusade has been less violent but its impact has 
been more devastating than the medieval holy wars. The 
powerful Muslim world has been reduced to a dependent 
bloc, and Muslim society has been gravely dislocated in the 
course of an accelerated modernization programme. All over 
the world, as we have seen, people in all the major faiths have 
reeled under the impact of Western modernity, and have pro- 
duced the embattled and frequently intolerant religiosity that 
we call fundamentalism. As they struggle to rectify what they 
see as the damaging effects of modern secular culture, funda- 
mentalists fight back and, in the process, they depart from the 
core values of compassion, justice and benevolence that char- 
acterize all the world faiths, including Islam. Religion, like 
any other human activity, is often abused, but at its best it 
helps human beings to cultivate a sense of the sacred inviola- 
bility of each individual, and thus to mitigate the murderous 
violence to which our species is tragically prone. Religion has 
committed atrocities in the past, but in its brief history secu- 
larism has proved that it can be just as violent. As we have 
seen, secular aggression and persecution have often led to a 
heightening of religious intolerance and hatred. 

This became tragically clear in Algeria in 1992. During the 
religious revival of the 1970s, the Islamic Salvation Front 
(FIS) challenged the hegemony of the secular nationalist 
party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had led 
the revolution against French colonial rule in 1954, and had 
established a socialist government in the country in 1962. The 

Islam ' 181 

Algerian revolution against France had been an inspiration to 
Arabs and Muslims who were also struggling to gain inde- 
pendence from Europe. The FLN was similar to the other 
secular and socialist governments in the Middle East at this 
time, which had relegated Islam to the private sphere, on the 
Western pattern. By the 1970s, however, people all over the 
Muslim world were becoming dissatisfied with these secular- 
ist ideologies which had not delivered what they had 
promised. Abbas Madani, one of the founding members of 
FIS, wanted to create an Islamic political ideology for the 
modern world; Ali ibn Hajj, the imam of a mosque in a poor 
neighbourhood in Algiers, led a more radical wing of FIS. 
Slowly, FIS began to build its own mosques, without getting 
permission from the government; it took root in the Muslim 
community in France, where workers demanded places of 
prayer in the factories and offices, incurring the wrath of the 
right-wing party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. 

By the 1980s, Algeria was in the grip of an economic crisis. 
FLN had set the country on the path to democracy and state- 
hood, but over the years it had become corrupt. The old garde 
were reluctant to attempt more democratic reforms. There 
had been a population explosion in Algeria; most of its thirty 
million inhabitants were under thirty, many were unem- 
ployed, and there was an acute housing shortage. There were 
riots. Frustrated with the stagnation and ineptitude of the 
FLN, the young wanted something new and turned to the Is- 
lamic parties. In June 1990 the FIS scored major victories in 
the local elections, especially in the urban areas. FIS activists 
were mostly young, idealistic and well educated; they were 
known to be honest and efficient in government, though they 
were dogmatic and conservative in some areas, such as their 
insistence upon traditional Islamic dress for women. But the 
FIS was not anti-Western. Leaders spoke of encouraging links 
with the European Union and fresh Western investment. 

182 . Karen Armstrong 

After the electoral victories at the local level, they seemed 
certain to succeed in the legislative elections that were sched- 
uled for 1992. 

There was to be no Islamic government in Algeria, how- 
ever. The military staged a coup, ousted the liberal FLN 
President Benjedid (who had promised democratic reforms), 
suppressed FIS, and threw its leaders into prison. Had elec- 
tions been prevented in such a violent and unconstitutional 
manner in Iran and Pakistan, there would have been an out- 
cry in the West. Such a coup would have been seen as an ex- 
ample of Islam's supposedly endemic aversion to democracy, 
and its basic incompatibility with the modern world. But be- 
cause it was an Islamic government that had been thwarted by 
the coup, there was jubilation in the Western press. Algeria 
had been saved from the Islamic menace; the bars, casinos and 
discotheques of Algiers had been spared; and in some myste- 
rious way, this undemocratic action had made Algeria safe for 
democracy. The French government threw its support behind 
the new hardHne FLN of President Liamine Zeroual and 
strengthened his resolve to hold no further dialogue with FIS. 
Not surprisingly, the Muslim world was shocked by this fresh 
instance of Western double standards. 

The result was tragically predictable. Pushed outside the 
due processes of law, outraged, and despairing of justice, the 
more radical members of FIS broke away to form a guerrilla 
organization, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and began a 
terror campaign in the mountainous regions south of Al- 
giers. There were massacres, in which the population of en- 
tire villages was killed. Journalists and intellectuals, secular 
and religious, were also targeted. It was generally assumed 
that the Islamists were wholly responsible for these atroci- 
ties, but gradually questions were asked which pointed to the 
fact that some elements in the Algerian military forces not 
only acquiesced but also participated in the killing to dis- 

Islam • 183 

credit the GIA. There was now a ghastly stalemate. Both 
FLN and FIS were torn apart by an internal feud between 
the pragmatists, who wanted a solution, and the hardliners, 
who refused to negotiate. The violence of the initial coup to 
stop the elections had led to an outright war between the re- 
ligious and secularists. In January 1995 the Roman Catholic 
Church helped to organize a meeting in Rome to bring the 
two sides together, but Zeroual's government refused to par- 
ticipate. A golden opportunity had been lost. There was 
more Islamic terror, and a constitutional referendum banned 
all religious political parties. 

The tragic case of Algeria must not become a paradigm for 
the future. Suppression and coercion had helped to push a 
disgruntled Muslim minority into a violence that offends 
every central tenet of Islam. An aggressive secularism had re- 
sulted in a religiosity that was a travesty of true faith. The in- 
cident further tarnished the notion of democracy, which the 
West is so anxious to promote, but which, it appeared, had 
limits, if the democratic process might lead to the establish- 
ment of an elected Islamic government. The people of Eu- 
rope and the United States were shown to be ignorant about 
the various parties and groups within the Islamic world. The 
moderate FIS was equated with the most violent fundamen- 
talist groups and was associated in the Western mind with the 
violence, illegality and anti-democratic behaviour that had 
this time been displayed by the secularists in the FLN. 

But whether the West likes it or not, the initial success of 
the FIS in the local elections showed that the people wanted 
some form of Islamic government. It passed a clear message to 
Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, where secularist governments 
had long been aware of the growing religiosity of their coun- 
tries. In the middle of the twentieth century, secularism had 
been dominant, and Islam was thought to be irredeemably 
passe. Now any secularist government in the Middle East was 

184 . Karen Armstrong 

uncomfortably aware that if there were truly democratic elec- 
tions, an Islamic government might well come to power. In 
Egypt, for example, Islam is as popular as Nasserism was in the 
1950s. Islamic dress is ubiquitous and, since Mubarak's gov- 
ernment is secularist, is clearly voluntarily assumed. Even in 
secularist Turkey, recent polls showed that some 70 percent of 
the population claimed to be devout, and that 20 percent 
prayed five times a day. People are turning to the Muslim 
Brotherhood in Jordan, and Palestinians are looking to Mu- 
jamah, while the PLO, which in the 1960s carried all before it, 
is now looking cumbersome, corrupt and out of date. In the 
republics of Central Asia, Muslims are rediscovering their re- 
ligion after decades of Soviet oppression. People have tried 
the secularist ideologies, which have worked so successfully in 
Western countries where they are on home ground. Increas- 
ingly, Muslims want their governments to conform more 
closely to the Islamic norm. 

The precise form that this will take is not yet clear. In 
Egypt it seems that a majority of Muslims would like to see 
the Shariah as the law of the land, whereas in Turkey only 3 
percent want this. Even in Egypt, however, some of the ulama 
are aware that the problems of transforming the Shariah, an 
agrarian law code, to the very different conditions of moder- 
nity will be extreme. Rashid Rida had been aware of this as 
early as the 1930s. But that is not to say that it cannot be 

It is not true that Muslims are now uniformly filled with 
hatred of the West. In the early stages of modernization, 
many leading thinkers were infatuated with European cul- 
ture, and by the end of the twentieth century some of the 
most eminent and influential Muslim thinkers were now 
reaching out to the West again. President Khatami of Iran is 
only one example of this trend. So is the Iranian intellectual 
Abdoikarim Sorush, who held important posts in Khomeini's 

Islam • 185 

government, and though he is often harried by the more con- 
servative mujtahids, he strongly influences those in power. 
Sorash admires Khomeini, but has moved beyond him. He 
maintains that Iranians now have three identities: pre- 
Islamic, Islamic and Western, which they must try to recon- 
cile. Sorash rejects the secularism of the West and believes 
that human beings will always need spirituality, but advises 
Iranians to study the modern sciences, while holding on to 
Shii tradition. Islam must develop itsfigh, so as to accommo- 
date the modern industrial world, and evolve a philosophy of 
civil rights and an economic theory capable of holding its 
own in the twenty-first century. 

Sunni thinkers have come to similar conclusions. Western 
hostility towards Islam springs from ignorance, Rashid al- 
Ghannouchi, the leader of the exiled Renaissance Party in 
Tunisia, believes. It also springs from a bad experience of 
Christianity, which did stifle thought and creativity. He de- 
scribes himself as a "democratic Islamist" and sees no incom- 
patibility between Islam and democracy, but he rejects the 
secularism of the West, because the human being cannot be 
so divided and fragmented. The Muslim ideal of tawhid re- 
jects the duality of body and spirit, intellect and spirituality, 
men and women, morality and the economy, East and West. 
Muslims want modernity, but not one that has been imposed 
upon them by America, Britain or France. Muslims admire 
the efficiency and beautiful technology of the West; they are 
fascinated by the way a regime can be changed in the West 
without bloodshed. But when Muslims look at Western soci- 
ety, they see no light, no heart and no spirituality. They want 
to hold on to their own religious and moral traditions and, at 
the same time, to try to incorporate some of the best aspects 
of Western civilization. Yusuf Abdallah al-Qaradawi, a grad- 
uate of al-Azhar, and a Muslim Brother, who is currently the 
director of the Centre for Sunnah and Sirah at the University 

186 . Karen Armstrong 

of Qatar, takes a similar line. He believes in moderation, and 
is convinced that the bigotry that has recently appeared in the 
Muslim world will impoverish people by depriving them of 
the insights and visions of other human beings. The Prophet 
Muhammad said that he had come to bring a "Middle Way" 
of religious life that shunned extremes, and Qaradawi thinks 
that the current extremism in some quarters of the Islamic 
world is alien to the Muslim spirit and will not last. Islam is a 
religion of peace, as the Prophet had shown when he made an 
unpopular treaty with the Quraysh at Hudaybiyyah, a feat 
which the Quran calls "a great victory.'" The West, he insists, 
must learn to recognize the Muslims' right to live their reli- 
gion and, if they choose, to incorporate the Islamic ideal in 
their polity. They have to appreciate that there is more than 
one way of life. Variety benefits the whole world. God gave 
human beings the right and ability to choose, and some may 
opt for a religious way of life-including an Islamic state — 
while others prefer the secular ideal. 

"It is better for the West that Muslims should be reli- 
gious," Qaradawi argues, "hold to their religion, and try to be 
moral.'"4 He raises an important point. Many Western people 
are also becoming uncomfortable about the absence of spiri- 
tuality in their lives. They do not necessarily want to return 
to pre-modern religious lifestyles or to conventionally insti- 
tutional faith. But there is a growing appreciation that, at its 
best, religion has helped human beings to cultivate decent 
values. Islam kept the notions of social justice, equality, tol- 
erance and practical compassion in the forefront of the Mus- 
lim conscience for centuries. Muslims did not always live up 
to these ideals and frequently found difficulty in incarnating 
them in their social and political institutions. But the strug- 
gle to achieve this was for centuries the mainspring of Is- 
lamic spirituality. Western people must become aware that it 
is in their interests too that Islam remains healthy and strong. 

Islam • 187 

The West has not been wholly responsible for the extreme 
forms of Islam, which have cultivated a violence that violates 
the most sacred canons of religion. But the West has cer- 
tainly contributed to this development and, to assuage the 
fear and despair that lies at the root of all fundamentalist vi- 
sion, should cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam 
in the third Christian millennium. 


On September 11,2001, nineteen Muslim extremists hijacked 
four passenger jets, flying two of them into the World Trade 
Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon in Wash- 
ington, D.C., killing more than three thousand people. The 
fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania. The hijackers were dis- 
ciples of Osama bin Laden, whose militant brand of Islam was 
deeply influenced by Sayyid Qutb. 

The ferocity of this attack against the United States took 
the fundamentalist war against modernity into a new phase. 
When this book was first published in 2000, I had predicted 
that if Muslims continued to feel that their religion was under 
attack, fundamentalist violence was likely to become more 
extreme and to take new forms. Some of the hijackers fre- 
quented night clubs and drank alcohol, which is forbidden 
in Islam, before boarding the doomed planes. They were 
quite unlike normal Muslim fundamentalists, who live strictly 
orthodox lives and regard night clubs as symbols of the 
jahiliyyah that is forever and for all time the enemy of true 

The vast majority of Muslims recoiled in horror from this 
September apocalypse and pointed out that such an atrocity 
contravened the most sacred tenets of Islam. The Quran con- 

790 ■ Epilogue 

demns all aggressive warfare and teaches that the only just 
war is a war of self-defense. But Osama bin Laden and his dis- 
ciples claimed that Muslims were under attack. He pointed to 
the presence of American troops on the sacred soil of Arabia; 
to the continued bombing of Iraq by American and British 
fighter planes; to the American-led sanctions against Iraq, as a 
result of which thousands of civilians and children had died; 
to the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians at the hands of Is- 
rael, America's chief ally in the Middle East; and to the sup- 
port that the United States gives to governments that bin 
Laden regards as corrupt and oppressive, such as the royal 
family of Saudi Arabia. However we view American foreign 
policy, none of this can justify such a murderous attack, which 
has no sanction in either the Quran or the Shariah. Islamic 
law forbids Muslims to declare war against a country in which 
Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely, and it 
strongly prohibits the killing of innocent civilians. The fear 
and rage that lie at the heart of all fundamentalist vision 
nearly always tend to distort the tradition that fundamental- 
ists are trying to defend, and this has never been more evident 
than on September 11. There has seldom been a more fla- 
grant and wicked abuse of religion. 

Immediately after the attack, there was a backlash against 
Muslims in Western countries. Muslims were attacked in the 
streets, and people of oriental appearance were forbidden to 
board aircraft; women felt afraid to leave their homes wearing 
the hijab and graffiti appeared on public buildings urging 
"sand niggers" to go home. It was widely assumed that there 
was something in the religion of Islam that impelled Muslims 
to cruelty and violence, and the media all too frequently en- 
couraged this assumption. Recognizing the danger of such an 
approach, President George W Bush quickly proclaimed that 
Islam was a great and peaceful religion, and that bin Laden 
and the hijackers should not be regarded as typical represen- 

Epilogue . 191 

tatives of the faith. He was careful to have a Muslim stand- 
ing beside him at the ceremony of mourning in Washington 
National Cathedral and visited mosques to show his support 
for American Muslims. This was a wholly new and extremely 
welcome development. Nothing similar had happened at the 
time of the Salman Rushdie crisis or during the Desert Storm 
campaign against Saddam Hussein. It was also heartening to 
see Americans descending upon the bookstores, reading every- 
thing they could find about Islam, and struggling to under- 
stand the Muslim faith, even though they were reeling in 
horror from this terrorist attack. 

It has never been more important for Western people to 
acquire a just appreciation and understanding of Islam. The 
world changed on September 1 1 . We now realize that we in 
the privileged Western countries can no longer assume that 
events in the rest of the world do not concern us. What hap- 
pens in Gaza, Iraq, or Afghanistan today is likely to have 
repercussions in New York, Washington, or London tomor- 
row, and small groups will soon have the capacity to commit 
acts of mass destruction that were previously only possible 
for powerful nation states. In the campaign against terror on 
which the United States has now embarked, accurate intelli- 
gence and information are vital. To cultivate a distorted 
image of Islam, to view it as inherently the enemy of democ- 
racy and decent values, and to revert to the bigoted views of 
the medieval Crusaders would be a catastrophe. Not only will 
such an approach antagonize the 12 billion Muslims with 
whom we share the world, but it will also violate the disinter- 
ested love of truth and the respect for the sacred rights of 
others that characterize both Islam and Western society at 
their best. 


Abbas I, Shah (1588-1629): presided over the zenith of the Safavid 
Empire in Iran, building a magnificent court at Isfahan and import- 
ing Shii ulama from abroad to instruct Iranians in Twelver Ortho- 

Abd al-Malik: Umayyad caliph (685-705) who restored Umayyad 
power after a period of civil war; the Dome of the Rock was com- 
pleted under his auspices in 691. 

Abd al-Wahhab, Muhammad ibn (1703-92): a Sunni reformer who 
tried to effect a radical return to the fundamentals of Islam. Wah- 
habism is the form of Islam practised today in Saudi Arabia. 

Abdu, Muhammad (1849-1905): an Egyptian reformer who sought to 
modernize Islamic institutions to enable Muslims to make sense of 
the new Western ideals and reunify the country. 

Abdulfazl Allami (1551-1602): Sufi historian and biographer of the 
Moghul emperor Akbar. 

Abdulhamid: Ottoman sultan (1839-61) who issued the Giilhane de- 
crees which modified absolute rule and made the government de- 
pendent upon a contractual agreement with Ottoman subjects. 

Abu Bakr: one of the first converts to Islam; a close friend of the 
Prophet Muhammad, he became the first caliph (632-34) after 
Muhammad's death. 

Abu al-Hakam (also known in the Quran as Abu Jahl, Father of Lies): 
he led the opposition against Muhammad in Mecca. 

Abu Hanifah (699-767): a pioneer offtqh and the founder of the Hanafi 
school of jurisprudence. 

194 . Key Figures in the History of Islam 

Abu al-Qasim Muhammad: also known as the Hidden Imam. He was 
the Twelfth Imam of the Shiah, who was said to have gone into hid- 
ing in 874 to save his life; in 934 his "Occultation" was declared: 
God, it was said, had miraculously concealed the imam and he could 
make no further direct contact with Shiis. Shortly before the Last 
Judgement, he would return as the Mahdi to inaugurate a golden age 
of justice and peace, having destroyed the enemies of God. 

Abu Sufyan: led the opposition against the Prophet Muhammad after 
the death of Abu al-Hakam (q.v.), but eventually, when he realized 
that Muhammad was invincible, converted to Islam. He belonged to 
the Umayyad family in Mecca, and his son Muawiyyah (q.v.) became 
the first Umayyad caliph. 

Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-833): hadith collector, legist and leading figure 
of the ahl al-hadith. His spirit is enshrined in the Hanbali school of 
Islamic jurisprudence. 

Ahmad ibn Idris (1780-1836): the Neo-Sufi reformer, active in Mo- 
rocco, North Africa and the Yemen, who bypassed the ulama and 
tried to bring a more vibrant form of Islam directly to the people. 

Ahmad Khan, Sir Sayyid (1817-98): an Indian reformer who tried to 
adapt Islam to modern Western liberalism, and who urged Indians to 
collaborate with the Europeans and accept their institutions. 

Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1625): Sufi reformer who opposed the pluralism of 
the Moghul emperor Akbar (q.v.). 

Aisha: the favourite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, who died in her 
arms. She was the daughter of Abu Bakr (q.v.) and led the Medinan 
opposition to AM ibn Abi Talib (q.v.) during the first fitnah. 

Akbar: Moghul emperor of India (1560-1605). He established a toler- 
ant policy of cooperation with the Hindu population, and his reign 
saw the zenith of Moghul power. 

Ali ibn Abi Talib: the cousin, ward and son-in-law of the Prophet 
Muhammad and his closest surviving male relative. He became the 
fourth caliph in 656, but was murdered by a Kharajite extremist in 
661. Shiis believe that he should have succeeded the Prophet 
Muhammad, and they revere him as the First Imam of the Islamic 
community. His shrine is at Najaf in Iraq, and is a major place of Shii 

Ali al-Hadi: the Tenth Shii Imam. In 848 he was summoned to Samarra 
by Caliph al-Mutawakkil and placed under house arrest there. He 
died in the Askari fortress in 868. 

Key Figures in the History of Islam . i n c 

All al-Rida: the Eighth Shii Imam. Caliph al-Mamun appointed him 
as his successor in 818 in an attempt to court the malcontent Shiis 
in his empire, but it was an unpopular move, and al-Rida died — 
possibly murdered - the following year. 

Ali Zayn al-Abidin (d. 714): the Fourth Shii Imam, a mystic, who lived 
in retirement in Medina and took no active role in politics. 

Aqa Muhammad Khan (d. 1797): the founder of the Qajar dynasty in 

Aurengzebe: Moghul emperor (1658-1 707) who reversed the tolerant 
policies of Akbar, and inspired Hindu and Sikh rebellions. 

Baibars, Rukn ad-Din (d. 1277): Mamluk sultan who defeated the 
Mongol hordes at Ain Jalut in northern Palestine, and eliminated 
most of the last Crusader strongholds on the Syrian coast. 

Banna, Hasan al- (1906-49): an Egyptian reformer and founder of the 
Society of Muslim Brothers. He was assassinated by the secularist 
government of Egypt in 1949. 

Bhutto, Zulfaqir Ali: prime minister of Pakistan (1971-77) who made 
concessions to the Islamists but was overthrown by the more devout 
Zia ul-Haqq. 

Bistami, Abu Yazid al- (d. 874): one of the earliest of the "drunken 
Sufis," who preached the doctrine offanah (annihilation) in God, 
and discovered the divine in the deepest recesses of his being after 
prolonged mystical exercises. 

Bukhari, al- (d. 870): the author of an authoritative collection of ahadith. 

Chelebi, Abu al-Sund Khola (1490-1574): worked out the legal prin- 
ciples of the Ottoman Shariah state. 

Farabi, Abu Nasr al- (d. 950): the most rationalistic of all the Faylasufs, 
who was also a practising Sufi and who worked as the court musician 
in the Hamdanid court in Aleppo. 

Ghannouchi, Rashid al- (1941-): Tunisian leader of the exiled Renais- 
sance Party, who describes himself as a "democratic Islamist." 

Ghazzali, Abu Hamid Muhammad (d. 11 11): the Baghdad theologian 
who gave definitive expression to Sunni Islam, and brought Sufism 
into the mainstream of piety. 

Hagar: in the Bible, she is the wife of Abraham and the mother of 
Abraham's son Ishmael (in Arabic Ismail, qv.), who became the fa- 
ther of the Arab peoples. Hence Hagar is revered as one of the ma- 
triarchs of Islam and remembered with especial reverence in the 
ceremonies of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. 

196 . Yey Figures in the History of Islam 

Haqq, Zia ul-: prime minister of Pakistan (1971-77) who pursued a 
more avowedly Islamic government, which still separated religion 
from political and economic policy. 

Hasan ibn Ali (d. 669): the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib (q.v.) and the grand- 
son of the Prophet Muhammad. He is revered by Shiis as the Second 
Shii Imam. After the murder of his father, Shiis acclaimed him as 
caliph, but Hasan agreed to retire from politics and lived a quiet and 
somewhat luxurious life in Medina. 

Hasan al-Ashari (d. 935): the philosopher who reconciled the Mutazi- 
lah and the ahl al-hadith; his atomistic philosophy became one of the 
chief expressions of the spirituality of Sunni Islam. 

Hasan al-Askari (d. 874): the Eleventh Shii Imam, who lived and died 
in the Askari fortress in Samarra, as the prisoner of the Abbasid 
caliphs. Like most of the imams, he is believed to have been poisoned 
by the Abbasid authorities. 

Hasan al-Basri (d. 728): preacher in Basrah and leader of a religious re- 
form; he was an outspoken critic of the Umayyad caliphs. 

Hidden Imam: see Abu al-Qasim Muhammad. 

Husain ibn Ali: the second son of Ali ibn Abi Talib (q.v.) and the grand- 
son of the Prophet Muhammad. He is revered by Shiis as the Third 
Imam and his death at the hands of Caliph Yazid (q.v.) is mourned 
annually during the month of Muharram. 

Ibn al-Arabi, Muid ad-Din (d. 1240): a Spanish mystic and philoso- 
pher, who travelled extensively in the Muslim empire. A prolific and 
highly influential writer, he preached a unitive and pluralistic theo- 
logical vision, in which spirituality is fused indissolubly with his phi- 

Ibn Hazam (994-1064): a Spanish poet and religious thinker of the 
court of Cordova. 

Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad (d. 767): author of the first major biography of 
the Prophet Muhammad, which is based on carefully sifted hadith 

Ibn Khaldun, Abd al-Rahman (1 332-1406): author of al-Maqaddimah 
(An Introduction to History). A Faylasuf, he applied the principles of 
philosophy to the study of history and sought the universal laws op- 
erating behind the flux of events. 

Ibn Rushd, Abu al-Walid Ahmad (1126-98): a Faylasuf and Qadi of 
Cordova, Spain, known in the West as Averroes, where his rationalis- 
tic philosophy was more influential than it was in the Muslim world. 

Key Figures in the History of Islam . 197 

Ibn Sina, Abu Ali (980-1037): known in the West as Avicenna, he rep- 
resents the apogee of Falsafah, which he linked to religious and mys- 
tical experience. 

Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1 328): a reformer who tried to counter the influ- 
ence of Sufism and to return to the fundamental principles of the 
Quran and the sunnah. He died in prison in Damascus. 

Ibn al-Zubayr, Abdullah (d. 692): one of the chief opponents of the 
Umayyads during the second fitnah. 

Iqbal, Muhammad (1876-1938): Indian poet and philosopher who em- 
phasized the rationality of Islam to prove that it was quite compati- 
ble with Western modernity. 

Ismail: the prophet who is known as Ishmael in the Bible, the eldest son 
of Abraham, who was cast out into the wilderness at God's command 
with his mother, Hagar, but saved by God. Muslim tradition has it 
that Hagar and Ismail lived in Mecca, that Abraham came to visit 
them there and that Abraham and Ismail rebuilt the Kabah (which 
had been originally constructed by Adam, the first prophet and fa- 
ther of mankind). 

Ismail ibn Jafar: he was appointed the Seventh Imam of the Shiah by 
his father Jafar as-Sadiq (q.v.). Some Shiis (known as Ismailis or Sev- 
eners) believe that he was the last of the direct descendants of Ali 
ibn Abi Talib (q.v.) to succeed to the imamate, and do not recognize 
the imamate of Musa al-Kazim, the younger son of Jafar as-Sadiq, 
who is revered by Twelver Shiis as the Seventh Imam. 

Ismail Pasha: he became the governor of Egypt (1863-79) and was 
given the title Khedive (great prince). His ambitious modernizing 
programme bankrupted the country and led ultimately to the British 
occupation of Egypt. 

Ismail, Shah (1487-1524): the first Safavid shah of Iran, who imposed 
Twelver Shiism on the country. 

Jafar as-Sadiq (d. 765): the Sixth Shii Imam, who developed the doc- 
trine of the imamate and urged his followers to withdraw from pol- 
itics and concentrate on the mystical contemplation of the Quran. 

Jamal al-Din, "al-Afghani" (1839-97): an Iranian reformer who urged 
Muslims of all persuasions to band together and modernize Islam to 
avoid the political and cultural hegemony of Europe. 

Jinnah, Muhammad Ali (1876-1948): the leader of the Muslim League 
in India at the time of the partition of the country, who is therefore 
hailed as the architect of Pakistan. 

1 98 . Key Figures in the History of Islam 

Junaid of Baghdad (d. 910): the first of the "sober Sufis" who insisted 
that the experience of God lay in enhanced self-possession and that 
the wild exuberance of the "drunken Sufis" was merely a stage that 
the true mystic should transcend. 

Khadija: the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad and the mother of all 
his surviving children. She was also the first convert to Islam and 
died before the hjrah during the persecution of the Muslims by the 
Quraysh in Mecca (616 — 19), possibly as a result of the privations she 

Khan, Muhammad Ayub: prime minister of Pakistan (1958-69), who 
followed a strongly secularizing policy, which led eventually to his 

Khatami, Hojjat 01-Islam Seyyid: president of Iran (1997-). He wants 
to see a more liberal interpretation of Islamic law in Iran and to fos- 
ter relations with the West. 

Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah (1902-89): the spiritual mentor of the 
Islamic revolution against the Pahlavi regime, and the Supreme 
Faqih of Iran (1979-89). 

Kindi, Yaqub ibn Ishaq al- (d. 870): the first major Faylasuf, who 
worked alongside the Mutazilah in Baghdad but also sought wisdom 
from Greek sages. 

Kirmani, Aqa Khan (1853-96): an Iranian secularist reformer. 

Mahdi, Caliph al-: Abbasid caliph (775-85) who recognized the piety 
of the more religious Muslims, encouraged the study offiqh and 
helped the religious to come to terms with his regime. 

Mahmud II: Ottoman sultan (1808-39) who introduced the moderniz- 
ing Tanzimat reforms. 

Majlisi, Muhammad Baqir (d. 1700): an alim who showed the less at- 
tractive form of Twelver Shiism after it had become the establish- 
ment faith in Iran, vigorously suppressing the teaching of Falsafah 
and persecuting the Sufis. 

Malcolm X (1925 — 65): the charismatic leader of the black separatist 
group Nation of Islam, who achieved a high profile in the United 
States during the Civil Rights movement. In 1963 he seceded from 
the heterodox Nation of Islam and took his followers into main- 
stream Sunni Islam; as a result, he was assassinated two years later. 

Malik ibn Anas (d. 795): the founder of the Maliki school of Islamic ju- 

Mamun, Caliph al-: Abbasid caliph (81 3-33) whose reign marked the 
beginning of the Abbasid decline. 

Key Figures in the History of Islam . 199 

Mansur, Caliph al-: Abbasid caliph (754 — 75). Strongly suppressed Shii 
dissidents and moved the capital of the empire to the new city of 

Mansur, Husain al- (also known as al-Hallaj, the Wool Carder): one of 
the most famous of the "drunken Sufis," who is said in ecstasy to 
have cried "Ana al-haqq! " ("I am the Truth!") so convinced was he of 
his total union with God. He was executed for heresy in 922. 

Mawdudi, Abul Ala (1903-79): a Pakistani fundamentalist ideologue, 
whose ideas have been very influential in the Sunni world. 

Mehmed II: Ottoman sultan (1451-61) who is known as "the Con- 
queror" because he achieved the conquest of Byzantine Con- 
stantinople in 1453. 

Mir Dimad (d. 1631): founder of the school of mystical philosophy at 
Isfahan and the teacher of Mulla Sadra (q.v.). 

Muawiyyah ibn Abi Sufyan: the first of the Umayyad caliphs, who 
ruled from 661 to 680 and brought strong, effective government to 
the Muslim community after the turmoil of the first fitnah 

Muddaris, Ayatollah Hasan (d. 1937): an Iranian cleric who attacked 
Reza Shah in the Majlis and was murdered by the regime. 

Muhammad ibn Abdallah (c. 570-632): the prophet who brought the 
Quran to the Muslims and established the monotheistic faith and a 
single polity in Arabia. 

Muhammad Ali, Pasha (1769-1849): an Albanian officer in the Ot- 
toman army who made Egypt virtually independent of Istanbul and 
who achieved a major modernization of the country. 

Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi (d. 1832): the Neo-Sufi reformer who 
founded the Sanusiyyah movement, which is still predominant in 

Muhammad al-Baqir (d. 735): the Fifth Shii Imam. He lived in re- 
tirement in Medina and is said to have developed the esoteric 
method of reading the Quran which was characteristic of Twelver 

Muhammad, Khwarazmshah: ruler of a dynasty (1200-20) in Khwar- 
azm, who tried to establish a strong monarchy in Iran but incurred 
the wrath of the Mongols and brought about the first Mongol inva- 

Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah: the second Pahlavi shah of Iran 
(1944 — 79), whose aggressively modernizing and secularizing poli- 
cies led to the Islamic revolution. 

Mulkum Khan, Mirza (1833-1908): Iranian secularist reformer. 

200 . Key Figures in the History of Islam 

Mulla Sadra (d. 1640): Shii mystical philosopher whose work was an in- 
spiration to intellectuals, revolutionaries and modernizers, espe- 
cially in Iran. 

Murad I: Ottoman sultan (1 360-89) who defeated the Serbians at the 
Battle of Kosovo Field. 

Muslim (d. 878): the collector of an authoritative anthology of hadith re- 

Mustafa Kemal also known as Atatiirk (1881-1938): the founder of 
modern, secular Turkey. 

Mutawakkil, Caliph al-: Abbasid caliph (847-61) who was respon- 
sible for imprisoning the Shii imams in the Askari fortress in 

Nadir Khan (d. 1748): temporarily revived the military power of Shii 
Iran after the fall of the Safavid dynasty. 

Naini, Sheikh Muhammad Husain (1850-1936): an Iranian mujtahid 
whose treatise Admonition to the Nation gave a strong Shii endorse- 
ment to the notion of constitutional rule. 

Nasir, Caliph al-: one of the last of the Abbasid caliphs, who tried to 
use Islamic institutions to strengthen his rule in Baghdad. 

Nasser, Jamal Abd al-: president of Egypt (1952-70), leading a mili- 
tantly nationalistic, secularist and socialist government. 

Nizalmulmulk: the brilliant Persian vizier who ruled the Seljuk Empire 
from 1063 to 1092. 

Qutb, Sayyid (1906-66): a Muslim Brother, executed by al-Nasser's 
regime; his ideology is crucial to all Sunni fundamentalism. 

Rashid, Caliph Harun al-: Abbasid caliph (786-809) whose reign coin- 
cided with the zenith of caliphal absolute power, and who presided 
over a magnificent cultural florescence. 

Reza Khan: shah of Iran (1921-41) and the founder of the Pahlavi 
dynasty. His government was aggressively secularist and nation- 

Rida, Muhammad Rashid (1865-1935): journalist who founded the 
Salafiyyah movement in Cairo and was the first to advocate a fully 
modernized Islamic state. 

Rumijalal al-Din (1207-75): a highly influential Sufi leader who had 
a large popular following and founded the Mawlani Order, often 
known as the Whirling Dervishes. 

Salah ad-Din, Yusuf ibn Ayyub (d 1 193): the Kurdish general who be- 
came the sultan of an extensive empire in Syria and Egypt, returned 

Key Figures in the History of Islam . 201 

Egypt to Sunni Islam after defeating the Fatimid caliphate, and 
ejected the Crusaders from Jerusalem. Salah ad-Din (known as Sal- 
adin in the West) was the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. 

Selim I: Ottoman sultan (1512-20) who conquered Syria, Palestine and 
Egypt from the Mamluks. 

Selim III: Ottoman sultan (1 789-1807) who attempted a Westernizing 
reform of the empire. 

Shafii, Muhammad Idris al- (d. 820): revolutionized the study offiqh 
by laying down the principles fusul) of Islamic law; founder of the 
Shafii school of jurisprudence. 

Shah Jihan: Moghul emperor (1627-58) whose reign saw the height of 
Moghul refinement and sophistication; he commissioned the Taj 

Shah Valli-Ullah (1703-62): a Sufi reformer in India who was one of 
the first Muslim thinkers to see the threat that Western modernity 
posed to Islam. 

Sinan Pasha (d. 1578): architect of the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul 
and the Selimye mosque in Edirne. 

Sorush, Abdolkarim (1945-): leading Iranian intellectual who advo- 
cates a more liberal interpretation of Shiism, while still rejecting 
Western secularism. 

Suhrawardi, Yahya (d. 1191): Sufi philosopher, founder of the school of 
illumination (ishraq) based on pre -Islamic Iranian mysticism. He was 
executed for his allegedly heterodox beliefs by the Ayyubid regime 
in Aleppo. 

Suleiman I: Ottoman sultan (1520-66), known as al-Qanuni, the Law- 
giver, in the Islamic world, and the Magnificent in the West. He 
crafted the distinctive institutions of the empire, which reached the 
fullest extent of its power during his reign. 

Tabari, Abu Jafar (d. 923): a scholar of Shariah and historian, who pro- 
duced a universal history, tracing the success and failure of the vari- 
ous communities who had been called to the worship of God, 
concentrating particularly on the Muslim ummah. 

Tahtawi, Rifah al- (1801-73): an Egyptian dim who described his pas- 
sionate appreciation of European society in his published diary, was 
responsible for the translation of European books into Arabic and 
promoted the idea of modernization in Egypt. 

Umar 11: an Umayyad caliph (717-20) who tried to rule according to 
the principles of the religious movement. He was the first caliph to 

202 . Ky Figures in the History of Islam 

encourage positively the conversion of the subject people of the em- 
pire to Islam. 

Umar ibn al-Khattab: one of the Prophet Muhammad's closest com- 
panions. He became the second caliph after the Prophet's death 
(634-44), and masterminded the first Arab wars of conquest and the 
building of the garrison towns. He was murdered by a Persian pris- 
oner of war. 

Uthnian ibn Affan: one of Muhammad's first converts and his son-in- 
law. He became the third caliph (644 — 56), but was a less able ruler 
than his predecessors. His policies opened him to the charge of 
nepotism and inspired a mutiny during which he was himself assas- 
sinated in Medina. His murder led to the first fitnah wars. 

Walid I, Caliph al-: an Umayyad caliph (705-1 7) who ruled during the 
peak of Umayyad power and success. 

Wasan ibn Ata (d. 748): founder of the Mutazilah school of rational 

Yasin, Sheikh Ahmad (1936-): the creator of Mujamah (Islamic Con- 
gress), a welfare organization, in Israeli-occupied Gaza. The terror- 
ist group HAMAS was an offshoot from this movement. 

Yazid I: Umayyad caliph (680-83) who is chiefly remembered for the 
murder of Husain ibn Ali (q.v.) at Kerbala. 

Zayd ibn AJi (d. 740): the brother of the Fifth Shii Imam; Zayd was a po- 
litical activist and the Fifth Imam may have developed his quietist 
philosophy in order to counter his claim to the leadership. There- 
after Shiis who engaged in political activism and eschewed the 
Twelvers' withdrawal from politics were sometimes known as Zay- 


Ahadith (singular, hadith): news, reports. Documented traditions of the 
teachings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, which were not in 
the Quran but which were recorded for posterity by his close com- 
panions and the members of his family. 

Ahl al-hadith: Hadith People. A school of thought which first appeared 
during the Umayyad period, which would not permit jurists to use 
ijtihad (q.v.) but insisted that all legislation be based upon valid aha- 
dith (q.v.). 

Ahl al-kitab: People of the Book The Quranic term for people, such as 
Jews or Christians, who adhered to the earlier scriptures. Since the 
Prophet and most of the early Muslims were illiterate, and had very 
few-if any-books, it has been suggested that this term should 
more accurately be translated: "followers of an earlier revelation." 

Alani al-mithal: the world of pure images. A realm of the human psy- 
che which is the source of the visionary experience of Muslim mys- 
tics and the seat of the creative imagination. 

Alini: see ulania. 

Amir: commander. 

Ansar: the Medinese Muslims who became the "helpers" of the 
Prophet by giving the first Muslims a home when they were forced 
to leave Mecca in 622, and assisted them in the project of establish- 
ing the first Muslim community. 

Batin: the "hidden" dimension of existence and of scripture, which can- 
not be perceived by the senses or by rational thought, but which is 
discerned in the contemplative, intuitive disciplines of mysticism. 

Dar al-Islam: the House of Islam. Lands under Muslim rule. 

204 . Glossary of Arabic Terms 

Dhikr: the "remembrance" of God, especially by means of the chanting 
of the Names of God as a mantra to induce alternative states of con- 
sciousness. A Sufi devotion. 

Dhimmi: a "protected subject" in the Islamic empire, who belonged to 
the religions tolerated by the Quran, the ahl al-kitab (q.v.). they in- 
cluded Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. 
Dhimmiswere allowed full religious liberty and were able to organize 
their community according to their own customal law, but were re- 
quired to recognize Islamic sovereignty. 

Faqih: a jurist; an expert in Islamic law. 

Fatwah: a formal legal opinion or decision of a religious scholar on a 
matter of Islamic law. 

Fiqh: Islamic jurisprudence. The study and application of the body of 
sacred Muslim law. 

Fitnah: temptation, trial. Specifically, the term is used to describe the 
civil wars that rent the Muslim community apart during the time of 
the rashidun (q.v.) and the early Umayyad period. 

Futuwwah: a corporate group of young urban men, formed after the 
twelfth century, with special ceremonies of initiation, rituals and 
sworn support to a leader that were strongly influenced by Sufi (q.v.) 
ideals and practices. 

Ghazu: originally, the "raids" undertaken by Arabs in the pre-Islamic 
period for booty. Later a ghazi warrior was a fighter in a holy war for 
Islam; often the term was applied to organized bands of raiders on 
the frontiers of the Dar al-Lslam (q.v.). 

Ghulat (adjective, ghuluww): The extreme speculations, adopted by 
the early Shii Muslims (q-v.), which overstressed some aspects of 

Hadith: see ahadith. 

Hajj: the pilgrimage to Mecca. 

Hijrah: the "migration" of the Prophet Muhammad and the first Mus- 
lim community from Mecca to Medina in 622. 

Ijniah: the "consensus" of the Muslim community that gives legitimacy 
to a legal decision. 

Ijtihad: the "independent reasoning" used by a jurist to apply the 
Shariah (q.v.) to contemporary circumstances. During the four- 
teenth century Sunni Muslims (q.v.) declared that the "gates of ijti- 
had" were closed, and that scholars must rely on the legal decisions 
of past authorities instead of upon their own reasoned insights. 

Glossay of Arabic Terms . 205 

Ilm: a knowledge of what is right and how Muslims should behave. 

Imam: the leader of the Muslim community; Shii Muslims (q.v.) use 
the term to denote the descendants of the Prophet, through his 
daughter Fatimah and her husband, Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom Shiis 
consider to be the true rulers of the Muslim community. 

Irfan: the Muslim mystical tradition. 

Islam: "surrender" to the will of God. 

Jayiliyyah (adjective, jahili): the Age of Ignorance. Originally the term 
was used to describe the pre-Islamic period in Arabia. Today Mus- 
lim fundamentalists often apply it to any society, even a nominally 
Muslim society, which has, in their view, turned its back upon God 
and refused to submit to God's sovereignty. 

Jihad: struggle, effort. This is the primary meaning of the term as used 
in the Quran, which refers to an internal effort to reform bad habits 
in the Islamic community or within the individual Muslim. The 
term is also used more specifically to denote a war waged in the ser- 
vice of religion. 

Jizyah: the poll tax, which the dhimmis (q.v.) were required to pay in 
return for military protection. 

Kabah: the cube-shaped shrine in the holy city of Mecca, which 
Muhammad dedicated to God and made the most sacred place in 
the Islamic world. 

Kalani: a discussion, based on Islamic assumptions, of theological ques- 
tions. The term is often used to describe the tradition of Muslim 
scholastic theology. 

Khanqah: a building where such Sufi (q.v.) activities as dhikr (q.v.) take 
place; where Sufi masters live and instruct their disciples. 

Madhhab ("chosen way"): one of the four legitimate schools of Islamic 

Madrasah: a college of Muslim higher education, where ulama (q.v.) 
study such disciplines as fiqh (q.v.) or kalani (q.v.). 

Mawali (clients): the name given to the early non-Arab converts to 
Islam, who had to become nominal clients of one of the tribes when 
they became Muslims. 

Mujtahid: a jurist who has earned the right to exercise ijtihadf(q.v), usu- 
ally in the Shii world. 

Pir: a Sufi (q.v.) master, who can guide disciples along the mystical path. 

Qadi: a judge who administers the Shariah (q.v.). 

Qiblah: the "direction" which Muslims face during prayer. In the very 

206 . Glossary of Arabic Terms 

early days the qiblah was Jerusalem; later Muhammad changed it to 

Rashidun: the four "rightly guided" caliphs, who were the companions 
and the immediate successors of the Prophet Muhammad: Abu 
Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib. 

Salat: the ritual prayers which Muslims mate five times daily. 

Shahadah: the Muslim declaration of faith, "I proclaim that there is no 
god but Allah, and that Muhammad is his Prophet." 

Shariah: "the Path to the Watering Hole." The body of Islamic sacred 
laws derived from the Quran, the sunnah(q.v.) and the ahadith(q.v.). 

Shii Muslims: they belong to the Shiah i-Ali, the Partisans of Ali; they 
believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's closest male relative, 
should have ruled in place of the rashidun (q.v.), and revere a num- 
ber of imams (q.v.) who are the direct male descendants of Ali and 
his wife Fatimah, the Prophet's daughter. Their difference from the 
Sunni majority is purely political. 

Sufi; Sufism: the mystical tradition of Sunni Islam (q.v.). 

Sunnah: custom. The habits and religious practice of the Prophet 
Muhammad, which were recorded for posterity by his companions 
and family and are regarded as the ideal Islamic norm. They have 
thus been enshrined in Islamic law, so that Muslims can approximate 
closely to the archetypal figure of the Prophet, in his perfect surren- 
der {islam) to God. 

Sunni Islam: the term used to describe the Muslim majority, who revere 
the four rashidun (q.v.) and validate the existing political Islamic 

Tariqah: one of the brotherhoods or orders who follow the Sufi (q.v.) 
"way" and have their own special dhikr (q.v.) and revered leaders. 

Tawhid: making one. The divine unity, which Muslims seek to imitate 
in their personal and social lives by integrating their institutions and 
priorities, and by recognizing the overall sovereignty of God. 

Ulama (singular, alim): learned men, the guardians of the legal and re- 
ligious traditions of Islam. 

Ummah: the Muslim community. 

Umrah: the ritual circumambulators around the Kabah (q-v.). 

Zakat: purity. The term used for a tax of fixed proportion of income 
and capital (usually 25 percent), which must be paid by all Muslims 
each year to assist the poor. 




Ahl al-hadith: 


Ahl al-kitab: 

ah-lal ki-tab 

Alam al-mithal: 

aah-la-mal me-thal 









Dar al-Islam: 

dah-ral is-lahm 














fu-too- 'wah 










hij -rah 



208 . Pronunciation Guide 





























taw -heed 



1 BEGINNINGS (pages 3 to 37) 

1. Jalal al-Din Suyuti, al-ifqanfi ulum al aqram in Maxime Rodinson, 
Mohammed (trans. Anne Carter, London, 1971), 74. 

2. Muhammad ibn Ishaq, SimtRasul Allah (trans, and ed. A Guillaume, 
The Life of Muhammad, London, 1955), 1 58. 

3. Quran 25:3; 29:17; 4447; 69:44. Quotations from the Quran are all 
taken from Muhammad Asad (trans.), The Message of the Quran, 
Gibraltar, 1980. 

4. Quran 80:11. 

5. Quran 2:129— 32; 61:6. 

6. Quran 2:256. 

7. Quran 29:46. 

8. Quran Ti'A—l. 

9. Quran 741-5, 8-10; 88:21-2. 

10. Muhammad's concubine Mariam, who was a Christian and not one 
of his wives, bore him a son, Ibrahim, who, to the Prophet's immense 
sorrow, died in infancy. 

11. Quran 33:28— 9. 

12. Quran 33:35. 

13. Quran 43. 

14. Genesis 16; 18:18—20. 

15. D. Sidersky, Les Origines dans les legendes musulmanes dans le Coran et 
dans les vies desprophetes (Paris, 193 3). 

16. Quran 2:129-32; 3:58-62; 2:39. 

17. Quran 6:159,161-2. 

210 . Notes 

18. Quran 8:16-17. 

19. Quran 2:194, 252; 5:65; 22:40-42. 

2 DEVELOPMENT (pages 41 to 77) 

1. Quran 49:12. 

2. Quran 9:106-7. 

3. Little is known about the early Shiah. We do not know for certain 
whether Ali's male descendants really were revered by a group of 
mystically inclined Shiis, or whether this history was projected back 
on to the early imams after the line had become extinct, and when 
"Twelver Shiism" received definitive form. 

4. Quran 2:234; 8:2; 23:57-61. 

5. The origins of "Sevener" or Ismaili Shiism are obscure. The story of 
the sect's fidelity to Imam Ismail may have developed after the theol- 
ogy of "Twelver Shiism" was finally formulated, to give justification 
for the Ismaili position. Seveners, who were usually politically active, 
may have originally been "Zaydis," i.e., Shiis who followed the exam- 
ple of Zayd ibn Ali, the brother of the Fifth Imam, and believed that 
Muslims had a duty to lead armed revolts against an unjust regime. 

3 CULMINATION (pages 81 to 111) 

1. The Ismaili dynasty in Cairo is often called the "Fatimid" dynasty, 
because, like the Twelvers, Ismailis venerated imams who were di- 
rect descendants of Ali and Fatimah, the Prophet's daughter. 

2. Quran 2:109. 

3. Al-Muqaddimah, quoted in Youssef M. Choueiri, Islamic Fundamental- 
ism (London, 1990), 18. 

5 BLAM AGONISIES (pages 141 to 187) 

1. The theory of Velayat-i Faqih had been discussed by jurists before, 
but was little known and had always been considered eccentric and 
even heretical. Khomeini made it central to his political thought 
and later it became the basis of his rule in Iran. 

2. Quran 2:178; 8:68; 24:34; 47:5. 

3. Quran 48:1. 

4. Joyce M. Davis, BetweenJihadand Salaam: Profiles in Islam (New York, 

1997), 231. 


The Prophet Muhammad 

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GUALLAUME A. (trans, and ed.), The Life of Muhammad A Translation of 

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LINGS, Martin, Muhammad His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (London, 


NASR Sayyid Hossein, Muhammad, the Man of Allah (London, 1982) 

RODINSON, Maxime, Mohammed (trans. Anne Carter, London, 1971) 

SARDAR Ziauddin, and Zafar Abbas Malik, Muhammad for Beginners 

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SCHMMEL Annemarie, And Muhammad Is His Messenger The Veneration of 

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Islamic History 

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21 2 . Suggestions for Further Reading 

ALGAR Hamid, Religion and State inlran, 1785-1906 (Berkeley, 1969) 

BAYAT Margol, Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran 

(Syracuse, NY, 1982) 

ESPOSITD, John, Islam, the Straight Path (rev. ed., Oxford and New York, 


(ed.), The Oxford History of Islam (Oxford, 1999) 

GABRIELI Francesco, Arab Historians of the Crusades (tmns. E. J. Costello, 
London, 1984) 

HODGSON, Marshall G. S., The Ventureof Islam: Conscience and History in a 
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HOURAN1, Albert, A History of the Arab Peoples (London, 1991) 
HOURAM, Albert, with Philip S. Khoury and Mary C. Wilson (eds.), The 
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KEDDE, Nikki R (ed.), Scholars, Saints and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institu- 
tions in the Middle East since 1500 (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 

(ed.), Religion and Politics in Iran: Shiismfrom Quietism to Revolution 

(New Haven and London, 1983) 

LAPIDUS, Ira }A.,A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge, 1988) 

LEWIS, Bernard, The Arabs in History (London, 1950) 

, Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, 2 

vols. (New York and London, 1976) 

, Thefews of Islam (New York and London, 1982) 

, The Muslim Discovery of Europe (New York and London, 1982) 

, The Middle East 2000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity 

to the Present Day (London, 1995) 

MAALOUF, Amin, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (London, 1984) 

MOMEN, Mooj an, An Introduction to Shi 'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of 

Twelver Shiism (New Haven and London, 1985) 

MOTTAHEDEH, Roy, The Mantle of the Prophet Religion and Politics in Iran 

(London, 1985) 

NASR Seyyid Hosain, Ideals and Realities of Islam (London, 1966) 

PETERS, F. E., The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places 

(Princeton, 1994) 

, Mecca: A Literary History of the Muslim Holy Land (Princeton, 


PETERS, Rudolph, Jihad in Classical and Medieval Islam (Princeton, 


RA HMAN, Fazlur, Islam (Chicago, 1979) 

Suggestions for Further Reading . 21 3 

RUTHVEN, Malise, Islam in the World (London, 1984) 
SAUNDERS, J. J., A History of Medieval Islam (London and Boston, 1965) 
SMITH, Wilfred Cantwell, Islam in Modern History (Princeton and Lon- 
don, 1957) 

VCN GRUNEBAUM G. E., Classical Islam: A History 600-1258 (trans. {Cather- 
ine Watson, London, 1970) 

WALKER Benjamin, Foundations oflslam: The Making of a World Faith (Lon- 
don, 1998) 
WA TT, W. Montgomery, Islam and the Integration of Society (London, 1961) 

, The Majesty that Was Islam: The Islamic World 660-1100 (London 

and New York, 1974) 

WENSINCK, A. J., The Muslim Creed. Its Genesis and Historical Development 

(Cambridge, 1932) 

WHEAT C R OFT, Andrew, The Ottomans (London, 1993) 


AL-FARABI, Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (trans. Muhsin Mahdi, Glen- 

coe, 111., 1962) 

GORB1N, Henri, Histoire de laphilosophie islamique (Paris, 1964) 

FAKHRY, Majid, A History of Islamic Philosophy (New York and London, 


LEAMAN, Oliver, An Introduction to Medieval Islamic Philosophy (Cambridge, 


MCCARTHIE, Richard, The Theology ofal-Ashari (Beirut, 195 3) 

MOREWEDGE, P ., The Metaphysics ofAvicenna (London, 1973) 

(ed.), Islamic Philosophical Theology (New York, 1979) 

(eA.), Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism (New York, 1981) 

NETTON, I. R., Muslim Neoplatonists: An Introduction to the Thought of the 
Brethren of Purity (Edinburgh, 1991) 

ROSENTHAL E., Knowledge Triumphant The Concept of Knowledge in Me- 
dieval Islam {Leiden, 1970) 

SHARIF, M. M., A History of Muslim Philosophy (Wiesbaden, 1963) 
VCN G5U N EBAU M , G. E., Medieval Islam (Chicago, 1946) 
WATT, W. Montgomery, Free Will and Predestination in Early Islam (Lon- 
don, 1948) 

, Muslim Intellectual. The Struggle and Achievement ofAl-Ghazzali 

(Edinburgh, 1963) 

-, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought (Edinburgh, 197 3) 

214 . Suggestions for Further Reading 


AFHFL, A. E., The Mystical Philosophy oflbnu 'l-Arabi (Cambridge, 1938) 
ARBERRY, A J., Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (London, 1950) 
B A KHT IAR, L., Sufi Expression of the Mystic Quest (London, 1979) 
CHI11ICK, William C, The Sufi Path of Love. The Spiritual Teachings of 
i?«TO (Albany, 1983) 

*, The Sufi Path of Knowledge.. n al-Arahi's Metaphysics of Imagination 
(Abany, 1989) 

CORBIN, Henri, AvicennaandtheVisionary Recital (tmns.W. Trask, Prince- 
ton, 1960) 

, Creative Imagination in the Sufism oflbn Arabi (trans. W Trask, 

London, 1970) 

, Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shiite Iran 

(trans. Nancy Pearson, London, 1990) 

MASSIGNON, Louis, The Passion ofal-Hallaj, 4 vols, (trans. H. Mason, 

Princeton, 1982) 

NASR, Seyyid Hossein (ed.), Islamic Spirituality, 2 vols. (London, 1987) 

NICHOLSON, Reynold A, The Mystics of Islam (London, 1914) 

SCTJJMMEL A M., Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Ch&pel Hill and London, 


, The Triumphant Sun: A Study of Mawlana Rumi's Life and Work 

(London and The Hague, 1978) 

SMITH, Margaret, Rabia the Mystic and Her Fellow Saints in Islam (London, 


VALILDDIN, Mir, Contemplative Disciplines in Sufism (London, 1980) 


AHMED, Akbar S., Postmodernism andlslam: Predicament and Promise (Lon- 
don and New York, 1992) 

AKHAVI, Shahrough, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State 
Relations in the Pahlavi Period (Abany, 1980) 

AL-E AHMADjJalal, Occidentosis.A Plague from the Jfef (trans. R. Campbell, 
ed. Hamid Algar, Berkeley, 1984) 

DAVE, Joyce M., Between Jihad and Salaam: Profiles in Islam (New York, 

DJATT, Hichem, Europe andlslam: Cultures and Modernity (Berkeley, 1985) 
ESPOSnO, John (ed.), Voices of Resurgent Islam (New York and Oxford, 

Suggestions for Further Reading • 21 5 

, The Islamic Threat Myth or Reality? (Oxford and New York, 1995) 
-, with John L. Donohue (eds.), Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspec- 

tives (New York and Oxford, 1982) 

, with Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Muslims on the Americanization 

Path (Atlanta, 1998) 

GELLNER Ernest, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London and New 
York, 1992) 

GJLSENAN, Michael, Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern 
Middle East (London, 1990) 

HALUDAY, Fred, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in 
the Middle East (London and New York, 1996) 

HANNA Sami, and George H. Gardner (eds.), Arab Socialism: A Documen- 
tary Survey (Leiden, 1969) 

HOURANI, Albert, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (Oxford, 

IQBAL, Allama Muhammad, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam 
(Lahore, 1989) 

KEDDE, Nikki R., Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious 
Writings of Sayyidjamal ad-Din "al-Afghani " (Berkeley, 1 968) 
MATiN-ASGARi, Afshin, "Abdolkarim Sorush and the Secularization of 
Islamic Thought in Iran," Iranian Studies, 30, 1997 
MITC HELL, Richard P, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London, 1969) 
RAHMAN, Fazlur, Islam and Modernity. Transformation of an Intellectual Tra- 
dition (Chicago, 1982) 

SHARIAII Ali, The Sociology of Islam (Berkeley, 1979) 
, What Is To Be Done The Enlightened Thinkers and an Islamic Re- 
naissance fn.]}., 1986) 

, Hajj (Tehran, 1988) 

TBI, Bassam, The Crisis of Political Islam: A Pre-Industrial Culture in the 

Scientific-Technological Age (Salt Lake City, 1988) 

VOLL John, Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World (Boulder, 



APPLEBY, R. Scott (ed.), Spokesmenfor the Despised Fundamentalist Leaders of 
the Middle East (Chicago, 1997) 

ARMSTRONG, Karen, The Battlefor God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Chris- 
tianity and Islam (London and New York, 2000) 
CHOIMRL Youssef M., Islamic Fundamentalism (London, 1990) 

216 • Suggestions for Further Reading 

FISCHER, Michael J., Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge, 
Mass., and London, 1980) 

GAEFNEY, Patrick D., The Prophet? Pulpit Islamic Preaching in Contemporary 
Egypt (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1994) 

HAMAS, The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Jerusalem, 1988) 
HEKAL Mohamed, Autumn of Fury. The Assassination of Sadat (London, 

HUSSAIN, Asaf, Islamic Iran: Revolution and Counter-Revolution (London, 

JANSEN, Johannes J. G., The Neglected Duty. The Creed of Sadat's Assassins 
and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East (New York and London, 1988) 
KEPEL, Gilles, The Prophet and Pharaoh: Muslim Extremism in Egypt (trans. 
Jon Rothschild, London, 1985) 

KHOMEINI, Sayeed Ruhollah, Islam and Revolution (trans. Hamid Algar, 
Berkeley, 1981) 

LAWRENCE Bruce B., Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the 
ModernAge (London and New York, 1990) 

MARTY, Martin E., and R. Scott Appleby (eds.), Fundamentalisms Observed 
(Chicago and London, 1991) 

, Fundamentalisms and Society (Chicago and London, 1993) 

, Fundamentalisms and the State (Chicago and London, 199 3) 

, Accounting for Fundamentalisms (Chicago and London, 1994) 

, Fundamentalisms Comprehended (Chicago and London, 1995) 

MAWDUQ, Abud Ala, Islamic Law and Constitution (Lahore, 1967) 

, jfihadin Islam (Lahore, 1976) 

-, The Economic Problem of Man and Its Islamic Solution (Lahore, 
, Islamic Way of Life (Lahore, 1979) 

MILTON-EDWARDS, Beverley, Islamic Politics in Palestine (London and New 

York, 1996) 

NASR Seyyed Vali Reza, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution, the Jama at-i 

Islami of Pakistan (London and New York, 1994) 

QUIB, Sayyid, Islam and Universal Peace (Indianapolis, 1977) 

, Milestones (Delhi, 1988) 

, This Religion of Islam (Gary, Indiana, n.d.) 

RUIHVEN, Malise, A Satanic Affair Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam 

(London, 1990) 

SICK, Gary, All Fall Down: America ? Fateful Encounter with Iran (London, 


Suggestions for Further Reading . 217 

SiDHARED, Abdel Salam, and Anonshirivan Ehteshani (eds.), Islamic Fun- 
damentalism (Boulder, 1996) 


AFSHAR, Haleh, Islam and Feminisms: An Iranian Case-Study (London and 

New York, 1998) 

AHMED, Leila, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern De- 
bate (New Haven and London, 1992) 

— , A Border Passage (New York, 1999) 

GOLE, Nilufa, The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling (Ann Arbor, 


HADDAD, Yvonne Yazbeck, and John L. Esposito, (eds.), Islam, Gender and 

Social Change (Oxford and New York, 1998) 

KARAM, AzzaM., Women, Islamismsandthe State.. Contemporary Feminisms in 

Egypt (New York, 1998) 

KEDDE, Nikki R., and Beth Baron (eds.), Women in Middle Eastern History. 

Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender (New Haven and London, 1991) 

MERNISSJ, Fatima, Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry 

(trans. Mary Jo Lakehead, Oxford, 1991) 

The Harem Within: Tales of a Moroccan Girlhood (London, 1994) 
Women ? Rebellion and Islamic Memory (London, 1996) 


ARMSTRONG, Karen, Holy War The Crusades and Their Impact on Today? 

World (London, 1988; New York, 1991) 

DANIEL Norman, Islam and the West The Making of an Image (Edinburgh, 


, The Arabs and Medieval Europe (London and Beirut, 1975) 

QBB, H. A. R., and H. Bowen, Islamic Society and the West (London, 1957) 
HOURANI, Albert, Islam in European Thought (Cambridge, 1 99 1 ) 
KAB B A N I, Rana, Europe ? Myths of Orient (London, 1986) 

, Letter to Christendom (London, 1989) 

KEDAR Benjamin, Crusade andMission: European Approaches towards the 

Muslims (Princeton, 1984) 

RODINSON, Maxime, Europe and the Mystique of Islam (London, 1984) 

SAID, Edward W., Orientalism (New York, 1978) 

SOlTiHERN, R. W., Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (Catnbridge, 

Mass., 1962) 


Aaron, 69 

Abbari, Riza-i, 118 

Abbas (uncle of the Prophet), 53 

Abbas I, Shah, 118 

Abbasid caliphate, 53-57, 58-59, 62, 

67,71,81,82,96,98, 115 
Abd al-Malik, Caliph, 44 — 45,47, 50 
Abd al-Wahhab, Muhammad, 135 
Abdu, Muhammad, 153 
Abdulhamid, Sultan, 150 
Abraham, 8,17,23,69 
Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah, Caliph, 53 
Abu Bakr, First Caliph, 4, 15, 25-27, 52 
Abu al-Hakam (Abu Jahl), 12 
Abu Hanifah, 48-49, 58 
Abu Jafar al-Mansur, Caliph, 54, 57 
Abu Sufyan, 12, 19, 21, 23, 32,49 
AbuTalib, 13 

Abu al-Qasim Muhammad see Hid- 
den Imam 
Adam, 24, 69 
Aden, 148 

Admonition to the Nation (Naini), 149 
Afghani, al- (Jamal al-Din), 151-53 
Afghanistan, 32, 163, 170 
Africa, North, 29, 30, 32 

under Umayyads, 50 

under Abbasids, 59 

under Ismaili Fatimids, 81, 105 

under Ottomans, 115,132,135 
Afsanal-Arbaah.Al- (Sadra), 122 
ahadith, 49, 59-60, 83 
ahld-hadith (HadiY/i People), 58, 60, 

62, 63, 65 
ahlal-kitab (People of the Book), 10, 

11, 18,21, 30 
Ahmad ibn Hanbal, 62-63 
Ahmad Khan, Sayyid, 150 
Ain Jalut, Battle of, 97 
Aisha (wife of the Prophet), 15, 23, 33 
Akbar, Emperor, 124 — 2 7 
Alamut, 87, 97 
Albert the Great, 83 
Aleppo, 91, 93 

Alexius Comnenus I, Emperor, 95 
Algeria, 136 

French occupation, 148 

FIS and FLN in, 180-84 
Algiers, 181, 182 
Alhambra palace, 105 
Ali ibn Abi Talib, 4, 15,25 

as Fourth Caliph, 33-36 

in opposition to Muawiyyah, 34, 

and Shiahi-Ali, 36, 43, 52, 76, 108; 
65,70, 117, 173 

220 ■ Index 

Ali al-Hadi, Tenth Imam, 68 

Ali al-Rida, Eighth Imam, 63 

Ali Zayn al-Abidin, Fourth Imam, 

Aligharh college, 150 

Allah, 3,4, 8, 11,23,75 

AUami, Abdulfazl, 127 

American Muslim Mission, 177 

American Muslims, 177 

Anatolia, Byzantine resistance in, 29, 
Crusaders in, 93 
Seljuks advance into, 95; 101 
conquered by Timur, 107; 108 
under Ottomans, 109,115, 116, 

Andalus, al-, 105 

Angora, 110 

Aquinas, Thomas, 83 

Aristotle, 72 

Armenia, 32 

Asharism, 64 

Ashura, 159, 174 

Astrakhan, 116 

Atariirk (Mustafa Kemal), 148, 158 

Aurengzebe, Emperor, 128, 162 

Averroes, see Ibn Rushd 

Avicenna, see Ibn Sina 

Ayodhya, 178 

Ayyubid dynasty, 93, 97 

Azerbaijan, 97, 107, 109, 117 

Azhar, al-, college, 83, 175, 177, 185 

Babur, Emperor, 124 
Babur, Mosque of, 178 
Badr, Battle of, 19, 29 
Baghdad, 54, 55, 58, 63, 72 

Seljuks seize power in, 81 

in decline, 85; 86, 96 

falls to Mongols, 97 

sacked by Timur, 107 
Baibars, Sultan Rukn ad-Din, 97 

Banna, Hasan al-, 155-56, 171 

Basrah, 31, 34, 46, 48, 55, 62, 72 

Bedouin, 23, 26 

Bekhtashi dervishes, 109 

Bengal, 108, 147 

Benjedid, President, 182 

Berbers, 105, 132 

Bhutto, Prime Minister Zulfaqir Ali, 

Bihzad, 120 

Bistami, Abu Yazid al-, 75 
BJP (Bharatiya Janarta Party), 178 
Bonaparte, Napoleon, 147 

in Bengal, 147 

in Iran, 148 

in Aden, 148 

in Egypt, 148 

in Sudan, 148 
Buddhism, x, 76, 97,108, 125 
Bukhara, 97 
Bukhari, al-, 60 
Bulgar, 109 
Bursa, 109 
Byzantine Empire, 27, 30, 32 

decline, 95-96, 109 

seized by Ottomans, 110; 141 

Cairo, 69, 83 

Camel, Battle of the, 34,44 

Caucasus, 32, 117 

Chaldiran, Battle of, 118 

Chelebi, Abu al-Sund Khola, 133 

China, 107 

Christians in Muslim empire, 10, 30, 

125, 132,134; 164 
Constantinople, see also Istanbul 42, 

Constitutional Revolution (Iran, 

1906), 149, 161 
conversion to Islam: 
discouraged, 30, 41 

Index . 221 

encouraged by Umar II, 52, 53; 63 
Cordova, 83, 105 
Crusades, 93-95 

influence on Western view of 
Islam, 179-80 
Ctesiphon, 27, 54 
Cyrenaica, 29 
Cyprus, 32 

Damascus, 31, 34, 37,48, 97, 104, 

Danube, River, 95 
Dar al-Harb, 30 

Daral-Islam, 30, 81, 91,96, 159, 179 
David, 8 
Deccan, 124 
Delhi, 97, 107, 108 
Dervishes, Whirling, 101 
Dimad, Mir, 122 

Edirne, 109 
Egypt, 27, 29, 59 

under Ismailis, 69; 97, 105, 106, 

French in, 147-48 
British in, 148, 151 
under Muhammad Ali, 150-51; 
Euphrates, River, 34, 97 

Farabi, Abu Nasr al-, 72-73, 83 
Fard, Wallace, 177 
Fatamid dynasty, 81, 83,93 
Faylasufs, 71-73, 76, 83, 84, 90, 103, 
dominant under Moghuls, 116; 

promoted by Akbar, 125 
Falsafah study under Ottomans, 
134, 135,149-50 
FIS (Islamic Salvation Front, Algeria), 


first, 33,37,41,42,46 

second, 44 
FLN (National Liberation Front, 

Algeria), 180-83 

in Egypt, 147-48, 

in Algeria, 148 

in Libya, 148 

in Morocco, 148 
fundamentalism, 164-75 
Fustat, 31,32, 33 

Ganges, River, 108 

Gaza, 156 

Genesis, 17 

Genghis Khan, 96, 98 

Georgia, 117 

Ghannouchi, Rashid al-, 185 

Ghazzali, Abu Hamid Muhammad 

al-, 88-90 
GIA (Armed Islamic Group, Algeria), 

Granada, 105 
Giilhane decree, 150 

Hafsah (wife of the Prophet), 15 

Hagar, 17, 23 

baj], 11,22-23,67,75, 159 

Hanafi madhhab, 65 

Hanbali madhhak65, 104 

Harran, 55 

Harun al-Rashid, Caliph, 54-56, 57, 

Hasan ibn Ali, Second Imam, 36 
Hasan al-Ashari, Abu al-, 63-64 
Hasan al-Basri, 46-47, 48, 92 
Herat, 32 
Hidden Imam (Abu al-Qasim 

Muhammad), 68, 109, 118,120, 

123, 149, 173, 174 
Hijaz, 3,43 

222 ■ Index 

hijrah, 1 3, 18 

Hinduism, ix, 108 

encouraged under Akbar, 125 
suppressed under Aurengzebe, 128 
eighteenth-century rapproche- 
ment, 128 
post-Partition, 178 

Hindustan, 124 

Hisham I, 52 

Hubal, 11 

Hudaybiyyah, 23,186 

Hulegu, 96, 97 

Humayun, 124 

Husain ibn Ali, Third Imam, 43, 56, 
cultof, 121, 128, 159, 173, 174 

Ibn Ali al-Sanusi, Muhammad, 136 
Ibn al-Arabi, Muid ad-Din, 92, 101, 

Ibn Hajj, Ali, 181 
Ibn Hanbal, 65 
Ibn Hazam, 83 
Ibn Idris, Ahmad, 135 
Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad, 49, 84 
Ibn Khaldun, Abd al-Rahman, 105 
Ibn Rushd, Abu al-Walid Ahmad 

(Averroes), 83-84 
Ibn Sina, Abu Ali, 83 
Ibn Taymiyyah, Ahmad, 104-5,135 
Ibn al-Zubayr, Abdallah, 43 
India, 32,81,96,97, 107, 108 

under Moghuls, 11 5, 116, 124-29 

Muslims as beleaguered minority, 

European invasion of Islamic life, 

Partition, 149 

post-Partition Muslims in, 178 
Iqbal, Muhammad, 154 
Iran, 31,32, 44 

supports Abbasids, 53, 69 

under Turks, 81, 97; 97, 109 

under Safavids, 11 5, 116 

Shiism declared state religion, 1 17, 

British and Russian intervention, 

secularised by Pahlavis, 159-60 

Revolution (1978-79), 173-75 
Iraq, 27, 31,32 

support for Ali, 33, 36,43,44; 48,69 

under Turks, 81; 148, 160 
Irtysh, 97 
Isaac, 17 
Isfahan, 120,122 
Islamic Conference, 175 
Islamic Salvation Front see FIS 
Ismail (Ishmael), 17, 23, 30 
Ismail ibn Jafar, Seventh Imam, 69 
Ismail Pasha, 151 
Ismail, Shah, 109, 117, 118, 124 
Ismailis, 69-70, 87, 90 

massacred by Mongols, 97 

creation of state, 149 

expansionism, 156 
Istanbul, 130, 132 see also Con- 
lyah alum al-Din (al-Ghazzaii), 88 
Iznik, 109 

Jafar al-Sadiq, Sixth Imam, 57, 66, 67, 

Jafari madhhah, 67 

Jalal al-Din, 97 

Jamal al-Din see al-Afghani 

Jamaat-i Islami, 162 

Janissaries, 130, 150 

Jerusalem, 11, 18 

taken by Muslims, 29; 35,42 
Dome of the Rock built, 44; 88 
conquered by Crusaders, 93 
taken back by Saladin, 93, 178 

Index . 223 

Jesus, x, 8, 53, 69, 74, 157 

earlytribes, 10, 16-17, 20-21; 

in Muslim empire, 30-31, 125, 132 

in Europe, 157 

ultra Orthodox, 167, 171 
jihad, 6, 36, 87; 

Ismail's against Sunnism, 118, 124; 

Mawdudi and Qutb call for, 168-70 
Jihan, Shah, 127 
Jinnah, Muhammad Ah, 162 
Jordan, 184 
Junayd of Baghdad, 75 
Jundayvebar, 55 
June War (1967), 156 
Juneh Mosque, 178 

Kabah, 10-12,17,23 

Kabul, 124 

Kashan, 117 

Kashmir, 178 

Kazan, 116 

Kerbala massacre, 43, 56, 67, 121, 173, 

Khadija (wife of the Prophet), 4, 13, 

Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali, 175 
Khan, Prime Minister Muhammad 

Ayub, 162 
Kharajites, 35, 36,43,44,45,46,47, 

Khatami, President Hojjat 01-Islam 

Seyyid, 175, 184 
Khaybar, 21 
Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah, 122, 

Khurasan, 62, 101,117 
Khwarazmian Turks, 96 
Kirmani, Aqa Kahn, 149 
Konya, 101 
Kosovo Field, Battle of, 110 

Kublai Khan, 97 

Kufah, 31, 32, 33, 34, 36,43,48, 54, 55, 

Lat, al-, 8 

Lazar, Prince Hrelbeljanovic, 110 

Lebanon, 93,148 

civil war, 160 

hostages, 174 
Libya, 32, 136 

occupied by French, 148 
Locke, John, 1 58 

Madani, Abbas, 181 

Maghrib, 105 

Mahdi, concept of, 69, 70,109 

Mahdi, Caliph al-, 54, 59, 61 

Mahmud II, Sultan, 150 

Maimonides, 83 

Majlisi, Muhammad Baqir, 120, 122 

Malaya, 110,115 

Malcolm X, 177 

Malva, 124 

Malik ibn Anas, 59, 61 

Maliki madhhab, 59, 65 

Malikshah, Sultan, 85 

Mamluks, 104, 106 

Mamun, Caliph al-, 62-63, 72 

Manat, 8 

Mansur, Husain al- (al-Hallaj), 75 

Manzikurt, Battle of, 95 

MaqaJJimah,Al-(Von-Khaldun), 106 

Martel, Charles, 50 

Marwah, al-, 11 

Marwan, 44 

Mashad, 159 

Mathnawi (Rumi), 101-2 

Mawdudi, Abul Ala. 162, 168-69 

Mawlanah Order (Whirling 

Dervishes), 101 
Mecca, pre-Islamic, 3, 4, 6, 7, 11, 12 
as place of pilgrimage, 10-1 1, 22 

224 . Index 

Mecca, pre-Islamic (cord): 

taken by the Prophet, 23 

under Uthman, 32 

forbidden to non-Muslims, 103 
Medina, 14,20-21,24-25 

under Uthman, 31 -33 

under Ali, 33-34 

under Umayyads, 37, 43; 48, 59 

forbidden to non-Muslims, 103; 
Mehmed H (the Conqueror), 110, 130 
Mesopotamia, 117 
Mina, 11 

Moghul Empire, 115, 116,124-28 
Mongols, 96-102 


Chaghatay, 96, 106 

White Horde, 97 

Golden Horde, 97, 107 

convert to Islam, 98 

influence, 100, 101 

decline, 106, 109 
monotheism, 8, 13, 18, 75, 125 
Morocco, 135, 148, 183 
Moses, 8, 17, 69 
Mosul, 93 
Muawiyyah I, Caliph, 32, 34—36,41, 

42-43, 46,47, 48, 58 
Muawiyyah II, Caliph, 44 
Mubarak, President, 184 
Muddaris, Ayatollah, 159 
Muhammad ibn Abdallah (the 

revelation on Mount Hira, 3-4 

reveals Quran, 4-5 

and first Muslims, 5, 6, 10, 12 

Quraysh opposition, 12-14 

makes hijrah to Medina, 14 

changes qiblah to face Mecca, 18 

battles against Mecca, 18-22 

takes Mecca, 22-23 

death, 23 

succession, 49 

against coercion, 8, 10 

his wives, 15-16 

attitude to Jewish tribes, 16-17, 

asceticism, 31, 46, 56, 74 
as archetype, 24, 61 
Ismaili view of, 69-70 
insulting made capital offence, 

and Middle Way, 186 
Muhammad Ali, Pasha, 150-1, 158 
Muhammad al-Baqir (Fifth Imam), 

Muhammad, Elijah, 177 
Muhammad, Shah of Khwarazmian 

Turks, 96 
Muhammad Reza Shah, 159, 161, 

Mujamah (Islamic Congress), 156, 

mujdadid, 103-4 
Mulkum Khan, Mirza, 149 
Murad I, 109 
Murjites, 48 
Musa al-Kazim, 69 
Muslim (haditb collector), 60 
Muslim Brotherhood, 155, 158-59, 

162, 169,184, 185 
Muslims in Britain, 176 
Muslims in France, 176, 181 
Muslims in United States, 177 
Mutasim, Caliph al-, 63 
Mutazilites, 47-48, 57-58, 62-63, 64, 

Mutawakkil, Caliph al-, 68 
Muttawattah, Al- (Ibn Anas), 59 
Muzdalifah, 11 

Nadir tribe, 20 
Nadir Khan, 123 

Index . 225 

Naini, Sheikh Muhammad Husain, 

Najaf, 149, 173 
Nanak, Guru, 125 
Nasir, Caliph al-, 96 
Nasser, Jamal Abd al-, 158-59, 169, 

171, 184 
Nation of Islam, 177 
National Liberation Front see FLN 
Nile, River, 31 

Nizamiyy ah madrasah, 86, 88 
Nizamulmulk, 85, 88 
Noah, 17, 69 

Ottoman Empire, 109-10, 11 5, 116, 

Oxus River, 32, 63, 85, 96, 97, 1 1 5, 


Pahlavi dynasty, 159-61, 174 
Pakistan, 149, 162-63, 178 
Palestine, 29, 81,93, 97, 149, 184 

PLO, 184 
Partition of India, 149, 162, 178 
Pahtum tribe, 170 
Pen, Jean-Marie le, 181 
Persian Empire, 27, 30, 34, 55, 83 
Plato, 73 

Poitiers, Battle of, 50 
Portuguese, 117 
Protocol of the Elders ofZim, 22 
Punjab, 124, 128 

Qadarites, 47 

Qadisiyyah, Battle of, 27 

Qajar dynasty, 148, 149 

Qanuni, al- see Suleiman I 

Qatar, University of, 185-86 

Qaynuqah tribe, 20 

Qazvin, 87 

Qum, 31,117 

Quradawi, Yusuf Abdallah al-, 185-86 

Quran, xi 

as revealed to the Prophet, 4-5, 

poetic quality, 5; 6 

and continuity of faith, 8, 9, 11 

no coercion, 10 

and the Last Days, 12, 53 

and women's rights, 16 

andJews of Medina, 16-17, 20- 

on war, 22, 30 

on society, 29 

religious tolerance, 30, 170 

Uthman standardizes text, 33 

calligraphy, 45 

and political debate, 46 

iatin meanings, 56, 72, 76 

ahl al-hadith, 58 

Faylasuf interpretation, 72 

Sufi interpretation, 74 

as basis for Saudi government, 
Quraysh tribe, 3,4, 8 

oppose the Prophet, 12, 14, 19, 
22-23; 49, 186 
Qurayzah tribe, 20-22 
Qutb, Sayyid, 169-70 

Rabiah, 74 

Rafsanjani, Hashami, 175 

Rajputs, 108 

rashidun, 23-33,49, 52, 55, 56, 58,61, 

65, 77, 104, 1 17, 160 
Rayy, 117 
Red Fort, 178 
Red Sea, 117 
Renan, Ernest, 83 
Reza Shah Pahlavi, 159, 172 
Rida, al-, Eighth Imam, 159 
Rida, Rashid, 153-54, 184 
Rum, Sultanate of, 96, 97, 101 
Rumi,Jalal al-Din, 101-2, 103 

226 . Index 

Rushdie fotwah, 175 
Russia, 107, 116 
in Iran, 148 

Sadat, Anwar al-, 170 
Saddam Hussein, 151 
Sadra,Mulla, 122, 175 
Safavid Empire, 115, 116, 11 7-24, 

129, 130 
Safaviyyah order, 109 
Salah ad-Din, Yusufibn Ayyiib 

(Saladin), 93,95,179 
Samarkand, 83 

Timur builds court at, 106 
Samarra, 63, 68 
Sanusiayyah movement, 136 
Sassanids, 27, 30, 54, 56 
Satanic Verses, The (Rushdie), 175, 176, 

Sartre, Jean-Paul, xi 
Saudi Arabia, 161-62, 175 
SAVAK, 159 
Sawad, 34, 54, 85 
Second World War, 156 
Selim I, Sultan, 11 8, 130 
Selim III, Sultan, 137 
Seljuk Empire, 81, 85-87, 95, 96 
Serbia, 109-10 
Seveners. seelsmailis 
Seville, 105 
Shafii madhhak 65 
Shafii, Muhammad Idris al-, 59-60, 

Shariahlaw, 58-62,64, 84 

under Seljuks, 86, 88,96 

under Mongols, 100 

closing of gates of ijtihad, 103, 123, 
152; 104, 116, 125, 128, 129 

exalted under Suleiman, 132-33 

call for replacement by secular 
code, 149 

call for reform, 153 

replaced with civil system by 

Pahlavis, 159 
in Pakistan, 162-63; 175, 184 
Shii Muslims, 36,43, 45, 46,48,49, 
52, 54, 56-57 
rebellions, 61, 62, 63; 65, 66 
and Imamate, 68, 72, 73; 81, 103, 

104, 109 
dominant under Safavids, 116,117, 

massacred by Ottomans, 130; 134, 

suppressed by Pahlavis, 160 
and Iranian Revolution, 173-75; see 
also Ismailis and Twelvers 
Siddiqui, Dr.Kalim, 176 
Siffin, 34 
Sikhs, 125, 128 
Sind, 32 

Sinan Pasha, 132 
Sirhindi, Ahmad, 127-29 
Six-Day War (1967), 171 
Solomon, 8 

Sorush, Abdolkarim, 184-85 
Soviet Union, 149 
Spain, 50, 62 

Umayyad caliphate collapses, 83; 
Sudan, 148,160 
Suez Canal, 147,149,151,155 
Sufism, 74—76, 83, 85, 86, 87 

popularized, 88-92; 101,102, 103, 

dominant under Moghuls, 1 16, 

promoted by Akbar, 125 
under Ottomans, 134 
suppressed by Arariirk, 158 
drunken sufis, 75,101 
Neo-Sufis, 136 
sober sufis, 75 
Suhayl ibn Amr, 12 



Suhrawardi, Yahya, 91-92 
Suleiman I (al-Qanuni also the Mag- 
nificent), 132, 136-37 
Sunni Muslims, 63-65 

Seljuks as, 85; 87, 96, 103, 109, 

persecuted in Iran by Ismail, 

tolerated by Akbar, 125; 158 

fundamentalism, 170-71, 172 

and Malcom X, 177 

today, 184-85 
Sykes-Picot agreement, 148 
Syr River, 81,85, 97,106, 115 
Syria, 27, 29, 30, 32 

refuses to accept AH, 34; 44, 52 

Ismailis in, 69 

under Ismaili Fatimids, 81 

taken by Seljuks, 95; 97, 104, 106 

under Ottomans, 115,132 

Napoleon in, 148, 160 

Tabari, AbuJafar, 84 

Tabriz, 117 

Tahtawi, Rifah al-, 149-50 

Taj Mahal, 127, 178 

Talhah, 33 

Taliban, 163, 170, 172 

Tanzimat, 150 

taziyeh, 12 1 

Tehran hostages, 174 

Tigris, River, 54, 97 

Timur Lenk (Tamburlaine), 106, 1 10, 

Transjordan, 148 
Trench, Battle of the, 20, 2 1 , 2 2 
Tripoli, 32 
Tunis, 105 
Tunisia, 69, 105 

occupied by French, 148; 183, 

Turkish migrant workers, 176 

Turkey, 148,158, 184 
Twelvers, 68-69, 87, 109 

declared religion of Safavids, 1 17; 


Uhud, Battle of, 20 

Umar ibn al-Khattab, Second Caliph, 

5, 15,25,29-30,31,41,52 
Umar II, 50 

Umayyad dynasty, 4, 32, 34, 37 
caliphs, 41-42, 43, 46, 47, 48, 50 
brought down by Abbasids, 53, 54, 

ideal of, 6, 11, 13-14, 24-25, 27, 30, 

under Umayyads, 35, 36, 42, 43,45, 

under Seljuks, 84 
decline of, 152, 154 
United States, Muslims in, 177 
Urban II, Pope, 95 
Usulis, 122-2 3 

Uthman ibn Affan, Third Caliph, 4, 
15,31-32, 34,35,46,49,52,65 
Umm Salamah (wife of the Prophet), 

Uzbekhistan, 115 
Uzbeks, 118, 124 
Uzzah, al-, 8 

Valli-UUah, Shah, 129 
Velayat-i-Faqih, 174, 175 
Vienna, 132 
Volga, River, 97 

Wahhabism, 135, 161 
Walid I, Caliph al-, 50 
Waraqa ibn Nawfal, 4 
Wasan ibn Ata, 47 

converted by the Prophet, 4 

228 . Index 

women (conl): 

Quranic position, 16 
fundamentalist discrimination 
against, 166, 170, 172 

Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, 72 
Yarmuk, Battle of, 29 
Yasin, Sheikh Ahmed, 156 
Yathrib, 13; see Medina 
YazidI, 43, 173 

Yazid II, 52 
Yemen, 69, 85, 135 

Zangi, Imad ad-Din, 93 

Zayd ibn Ali, 56 

Zeroual, President Liamine, 182-83 

Zia al-Haqq, President Muhammad, 

Zoroastrians, 30, 125 
Zubayr, 33 


1. In Karen Armstrong's view, what is the historical mission 
of Islam? What is the chief duty of Muslims according to 
the Quran? What is the Islamic notion of salvation? 

2. What are the five pillars of Islam? Does Islam place more 
emphasis on right living or right belief? The community 
or the individual? In these ways, is it more similar to Chris- 
tianity or Judaism? 

3. At the time of Muhammad, what was the attitude of Islam 
toward other prophets and religious traditions? How were 
non-Muslim subjects, or dhimmi, treated in the Islamic 
empire? How does that treatment compare to what went 
on in the premodern West? 

4. Is Islam a militaristic faith? What does the Quran have to 
say about just and unjust wars? Given the context of his 
times, did Muhammad set a particularly violent or non- 
violent example? 

5. What does the Quran teach about the importance of 
converting people of other faiths? Does Islam condone 
coerced conversion? How does its theological stance on 
conversion compare to the teachings and practices of the 
other major world religions? 

230 . DiscussionQtyestipns 

6. What does the Quran have to say about the place of 
women? How forward- or backward-thinking was Muham- 
mad's treatment of women for his time? What accounts for 
the persistence of a practice such as female veiling in the 
modern-day Muslim world? 

7. What are the differences between Sunni and Shii Mus- 
lims? What were the origins of this split within Islam? Did 
it have theological underpinnings or was it merely po- 
litically motivated? 

8. What is the primary meaning of the word jihad? Explain 
its significance in Islam. How did Muhammad understand 
it? How do some modern-day fundamentalists understand it? 

9. What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism? How does 
Islamic fundamentalism compare to fundamentalist move- 
ments in other faiths? Are there certain of its precepts that 
make Islam more prone to religious fanaticism? What his- 
torical factors have contributed to anti-Western fundamen- 
talism in Islam? 

10. What have been some of the successes and failures of 
modern-day Islamic nation-building? What particular chal- 
lenges do postcolonial Islamic states face? What has been 
a common problem with the way secularism has been im- 
posed in the Muslim world? 

1 1 . What are some of the greatest challenges facing the 
Islamic faith today? 

12. What are the most common misperceptions about Islam 
and the Muslim world in the West? 


KAREN ARMSTRONG is one of the world's foremost 
scholars on religious affairs. She is the author of sev- 
eral bestselling books, including The Battle for God, 
Jerusalem, The History of God, and Through the Narrow 
Gate, a memoir of her seven years as a nun. She lives 
in London. 


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Daniel J. Boorstin 

A. S. Byatt 

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Ron Chernow 

Shelby Foote 

Charles Frazier 

Vartan Gregorian 

Richard Howard 

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Jon Krakauer 

Edmund Morris 

Joyce Carol Oates 

Elaine Pagels 

John Richardson 

Salman Rushdie 

Oliver Sacks 

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. 

Carolyn See 

William Styron 

Gore Vidal 



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